Knowns and unknowns in North Korea

Apr 05 2013
VERTIC Blog >> Verification and Monitoring
Russell Moul, London
On Tuesday this week, North Korea announced plans to restart its reactor at Yongbyon—a 30-year-old graphite-moderated five-megawatt reactor (5MWe) capable of producing plutonium. Two days later, the North was observed deploying ‘powerful’ ballistic missile to its eastern shore, which it threatened to use against the US and South Korea. These developments have gripped the international community in mass speculation: does North Korea pose a genuine threat or is this simply a case of heavy-handed brinkmanship? With what little is known about nuclear activities in North Korea, the room for speculation is large. Verification of nuclear facilities in North Korea has been absent for a number of years and reliable information on its current and future nuclear capabilities is limited. 
What's known?
The nuclear facilities at the Yongbyon complex were shut down in July 2007, as part of North Korea’s commitments to a landmark Joint Statement that emerged from the Six-Party Talks. That statement obliged the North to pursue the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, to return to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to IAEA safeguards. North Korean workers, alongside US and IAEA technical supervisors, then began to disable the 5MWe reactor a few months later. This was intended to make it more difficult and time-consuming for production of weapons-usable plutonium to resume in the future.
However, relations deteriorated sharply in April 2009 when, in response to UN condemnation of a rocket launch, the North announced that it was withdrawing from agreements reached within the Six-Party Talks framework. Alongside that, the North declared its intentions to ‘restore to their original state the nuclear facilities which had been disabled according to the agreement of the Six-Party Talks and bring their operation back on a normal track’. This was shortly followed by the expulsion of IAEA and US monitors from Yongbyon and, in May that year, the North announced the success of its second underground nuclear test. The UN Security Council issued a resolution as a response (no. 1874, 12 June 2009), which prompted the North to retaliate by stating its intentions to weaponise its plutonium supplies and stated also, significantly, that ‘the process of uranium enrichment’ would commence.
Tension rose further when, in 2010, North Korea revealed a light-water reactor (LWR) in the early stages of construction at Yongbyon. Construction began in late July 2010, and the target date for completion was estimated for 2012. However, satellite images of the site still show an incomplete structure. A visiting US nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker, confirmed the LWR’s existence during a November 2010 visit to North Korea, but he also reported the completed construction of a hitherto secret uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon. Initially, North Korea had insisted that the plant was making reactor fuel to generate electricity, but this week’s announcements from Pyongyang have confirmed Western fears: that the uranium plant is primarily intended to produce enriched material for use in nuclear weapons.
The decision to restart the Yongbyon reactor came two days after Mr Kim declared his nuclear weapons to be the ‘nation’s life’ and part of a ‘new strategic line’ to rebuild the economy in the face of international sanctions. On 31 March, during a meeting of the Central Committee of the Ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, Mr Kim identified the expansion of his nuclear arsenal as a key priority for this year. The ‘military-first’ state has repeatedly emphasised the need to devote its resources to a nuclear programme as the only means to defend the country against an American invasion. Mr Kim affirmed this by stating: ‘It is on the basis of a strong nuclear strength that peace and prosperity can exist and so can the happiness of people’s lives’.
This current escalation of provocation was sparked in December 2012, when North Korea successfully launched a long-range rocket in defiance of international pressures, and then carried out an underground nuclear test in February this year. The UN Security Council responded by issuing a number of sanctions against the North, which produced increasing hostility and enraged rhetoric as a consequence.
Speaking in Washington, US Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the North’s plans to restart the reactor as a ‘provocative act’ and ‘a direct violation of their international obligations’. He continued to assure South Korea that the US was committed to defending its ally. However, some American officials still regard the North’s belligerent activities as brinkmanship in action. Nevertheless, the situation remains volatile. David Cameron, on Thursday, used the North’s latest nuclear tests as part-justification for maintaining the UK Trident nuclear weapons programme, while China has demonstrated increasing unease  and ‘special concern’ over the conflict’s potential to spill over their boarder. 
What's unknown?
Since Pyongyang expelled international inspectors from Yongbyon four years ago, there has been no official verification regarding its facilities. Dr Hecker’s 2010 report remains the most recent source of information concerning the Yongbyon complex. During his visit, Hecker estimated that the North could resume all plutonium operations within ‘approximately six months and produce one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year for some time to come’.
However, this estimation is becoming increasingly dated. And there are clear drawbacks to relying too heavily upon a single individual’s approximations. Furthermore, since withdrawing from the Six-Party Talks and the NPT, the North is under no obligation to disclose any information concerning its activities. At the same time, the North’s enrichment operations gives it a second route to the production of nuclear weapons-usable fissile material.
There still exists a great deal of uncertainty over the current state of North Korea’s facilities. Dr Hecker could only report on the areas he had access to. The possibility that the North has developed additional facilities capable of producing either plutonium or enriched uranium cannot be ruled out. To give an example, the existence of the Fordow Enrichment Plant in Iran remained a secret until Tehran revealed the facility in a letter to the IAEA in September 2009 (when it was on the verge of exposure by Western powers).
Indeed, verification of any suspected nuclear facilities is not straightforward, especially where no on-the-ground access can be had. Satellite photos are the most common means for detecting the build-up of infrastructure and other features of interest in such situations. Clandestine enrichment activities, however, are virtually undetectable and can be hidden in otherwise nondescript warehouse-style buildings.
With tension currently running so high on the Korean Peninsula, the need for verifiable information concerning the North’s nuclear programme is crucial. However, the existing atmosphere of provocation between Pyongyang and the US threatens to perpetuate the present state of affairs: keeping the West in the dark. 

Last changed: Apr 05 2013 at 5:41 PM