While the world has focused its attention on the strategic and diplomatic developments regarding the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, something much more threatening to world stability has taken place in North Korea. The Yongbyon nuclear power plant, which produces plutonium as a waste product, has started up. Based on satellite photos, western experts say the plant is about to come on line. More plutonium in the hands of the Pyongyang government is much more serious than a sarin attack in Syria. It the difference between a thousand dead and millions dead.
Jeffrey Lewis, the author of the report, told the BBC, “The reactor looks like it either is or will within a matter of days be fully operational, and as soon as that happens, it will start producing plutonium. They really are putting themselves in a position to increase the amount of material they have for nuclear weapons, which I think gives them a little bit of leverage in negotiations, and adds a sense of urgency on our part,”
Published on the 38 North website, the report by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins says that analysis of the color and volume of the steam that the plant gives off points to a start up. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the North Koreans will need two or three years for the fission reactions to produce much plutonium, and it will take six to twelve months after that to separate the plutonium from other elements to create weapons-grade fissionables.
The five megawatt reactor itself is not a concern. Every country in the world has the right to nuclear power generation according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The worries come from what happens to the six kilos or so of plutonium the plant will generate every year. If it sits locked up in the spent fuel rods in a cooling pond, there is no problem. No one believes that is what the Pyongyang government has planned.
James Acton, an analyst for the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, summed it up beautifully when he said, “Restarting it is another slap in the face to the international community, indicating that North Korea has no intention whatsoever of abandoning its nuclear weapons.”
As ever, the question is “what can be done about it?” Unlike Syria, there is no military option for the Korean peninsula. Any strike by the US or its allies would unleash a second Korean war, and North Korea is known to have 4-10 nukes. Seoul and Tokyo might not last out the first day of such a conflict. Since containing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the strategic goal, any action that could result in the actual use of that arsenal is too dangerous to contemplate.
North Korea, of course, can always be bribed with food and fuel, and that has worked for the short and medium term in the past. That said, there is a new leader in North Korea. Kim Jong Un may not be as susceptible to bribery as his father was. Simply put, if he wants to have nuclear weapons, he probably can’t be stopped. This journal has long held the view that China holds the key to making the North behave. At least, that appeared to be the case under Kim Jong Il. One is less certain of Beijing’s influence over the new dictator.
Diplomacy is the only way forward, but realistically, there is very little that diplomacy can do right now to halt the production of plutonium. The world has a couple of years to address the problem, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start dealing with the matter today by discussing things with China to create a common front if possible.
Chemical attacks are much easier to handle.