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North Korea – Construction of Nuclear Power Plant

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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  • November 18, 2010

    In the latest game of one-upmanship vis-à-vis the US and other members of the six-party talks (SPT), North Korea has upped the ante by announcing to the world that there is no stopping its nuclear development programme. While the world grapples with the onerous task of getting Pyongyang back to the negotiating table by using a carrot-and-stick policy with the aim of denuclearising the Korean Peninsula, such a policy has only hardened Pyongyang’s position. The North has used the nuclear card and the SPT forum to extract more economic aid from the US, South Korea and Japan. China’s role in this has always remained suspect, while Russia’s role has remained minimal.

    In its latest move, Pyongyang let it be known that it has started constructing an experimental light-water reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear site. The Yongbyon site has remained in the news since 1994 when Pyongyang had blasted the site just to confuse the world. This move demonstrates Pyongyang’s intent to grab international attention and pressure the US into returning to nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang disclosed this information to Siegfried Hecker, an international expert and former Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, during his recent visit to North Korea. Hecker, a regular visitor to Yongbyon, revealed in Beijing on 13 November that the output of the reactor was on a scale of 25 to 30 megawatts of electricity, but could take several years to complete. Hecker’s comments were also echoed by Charles Pritchard, who told South Korean officials that North Korea is constructing a facility at Yongbyon.

    South Korean officials have not yet reportedly observed any satellite images suggesting that North Korea is currently involved in building a light-water reactor at Yongbyon but are watching related reports carefully. They also suggest that Pyongyang has so far threatened to build a reactor with its own technology. At the same time, some officials suggest that there was some digging activity in Yongbyon for which the purpose is unknown. Light water reactors, or LWR, are known to be the safest form of nuclear reactors in terms of proliferation, but trusting Pyongyang remains always questionable.

    In fact, in March 2010, North Korea had announced its intention to build a LWR using its own nuclear fuel in the near future. Pyongyang hopes to use the LWR as a means to enrich uranium. According to Lee Byung-ryung, a South Korean nuclear expert who was involved in a now-cancelled US-led project to build two LWRs in North Korea, rubbishes Pyongyang’s claim and says that a reactor of that size “does not appear to be a meaningful source of electricity because it is small.”

    Does the North’s move signal its intention to return to the negotiating table? The answer is ‘yes’. It extended invitations to Charles Pritchard, former ambassador and special envoy for negotiations with North Korea under George W. Bush, and to Siegfried Hecker, besides dispatching its vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, to Beijing. Earlier in September, a group including Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California San Diego's Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation visited Pyongyang, where they met with Li Gun, Director for North American affairs at North Korea's Foreign Ministry. Li told the group that Pyongyang was placing emphasis on economic policy with the intention of meeting its promise to the people to open the door to become a powerful, prosperous nation in 2012.

    Kim Kye Gwan stressed that Pyongyang was willing to engage in dialogue with the US and even expressed anticipation of US companies investing in his country. He also hinted that North Korea was ready to return to the SPT and start the denuclearization process. It may be recalled that Pyongyang declared its withdrawal from the talks in December 2008. However, there were no details about denuclearization.

    The decision to reveal the construction of the power reactor could be due to the following.

    • North Korea is not willing to abandon its nuclear activities;
    • The purpose of constructing the reactor may not be nuclear power, since a reactor of 25-30 MW power would not be economically viable; and
    • North Korea could argue in future talks that the enrichment programme would be required to meet the fuel requirements of the power reactor.

    The US engagement of North Korea dates back to the 1990s. In 1994, the US had reached the Agreed Framework with North Korea under which a US-led consortium known as KEDO (Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation) agreed to build two LWRs (1000 MWe each) in place of the ageing Soviet-era reactor at Yongbyon (which Pyongyang agreed to shut down) and dramatically increase the North’s power supply, in addition to supplying 50,000 tons of heavy oil during the period when the reactors were to be constructed. However, the deal collapsed in 2002 when the US confronted the North with evidence that it is clandestinely running a secret uranium enrichment programme in violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement.

    North Korea had immediately started operation of the 5 MW nuclear reactor, asked the IAEA inspectors to leave the country and reported to have taken out the spent fuel after running it for several months. The resumption of the dialogue had taken place with the initiation from China in 2005, first as a trilateral dialogue which was reformed later to SPT with the inclusion of Russia, South Korea and Japan. Though an agreement was reached between the parties, the agreement fell apart as there was no consensus.

    Meanwhile, North Korea separated plutonium from the spent fuel taken out from the Yongbyon reactor and conducted a nuclear test in October 2006. The SPT resumed in December 2006. An agreement was reached on 3 February 2007 which stipulated North Korea to dismantle its programme and also to declare the details of its programme and the five parties agreed to supply 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil to North Korea. These talks too failed in 2009 and North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in 2009. North Korea’s nuclear projects are of intense concern because of worries that it is building an arsenal of atomic weapons.

    The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), in its report of 8 October 2010 dealing with the uranium enrichment programme of North Korea, stated that:

    Known procurements for North Korea’s centrifuge program do not show whether North Korea is able to produce significant amounts of highly enriched uranium. Yet the data support that North Korea has moved beyond laboratory-scale work and has the capability to build, at the very least, a pilot-scale gas centrifuge plant. However, the procurement data do not contain consistent numbers of procured items that would indicate the construction of a 3,000 centrifuge plant, large enough to produce enough weapon-grade uranium for about two nuclear weapons per year.1

    Kim Yong-hyun, an expert on North Korean affairs at Seoul’s Dongguk University, believes that the reported construction “is a message to the United States that North Korea will keep working on its nuclear programs unless the U.S. comes forward to the six-nation talks.” North Korea is also sending signals that it is keen to improve relations with the South. The recent decisions to seek humanitarian rice aid from South Korea and resume reunions between displaced families is part of a ploy to show the US that North-South relations are improving.

    The US’ bargaining power had slightly diminished from the situation in 1994 or even 2002. Besides Iraq, the Obama administration is facing domestic opposition on the continuing operations in Afghanistan. Further, the Obama administration, in the recent elections, has lost its majority in the House of Representatives, and only barely managed to keep the lead in the Senate. Engaging North Korea through economic assistance might face domestic opposition. Pyongyang will also have to demonstrate its sincerity with specific moves.

    First it was nuclear plutonium programme, second it was uranium enrichment and now it is construction of light-water reactor, with which North Korea has tried to approach the negotiating table. Based on previous history, the construction of a light-water reactor appears to be beyond the capability of North Korea, unless external assistance is provided. It may also be remembered that each time North Korea returns to the negotiating table, it would be from a position of strength. In the SPT, China’s role is crucial to persuade North Korea to denuclearize and it will take several years to achieve that given Pyongyang’s past record.

    From India’s point of view, what would be more worrying is North Korea’s alleged complicity in Myanmar’s reported intention of pursuing a nuclear weapon development programme and links to Pakistan on similar lines. A new nuclear armed country – besides the existing two - in its neighbourhood is not favourable to India.