Responding to North Korea's Reopening of the Yongbyon Reactor
The Pulse

Responding to North Korea's Reopening of the Yongbyon Reactor

According to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), released on 27 August, activity at the Yongbyon nuclear power plant indicated that North Korea had completed a reprocessing cycle of spent nuclear fuel, which could potentially be used for manufacturing additional nuclear weapons. APLN asked four North Korea experts, Professor Chung-in Moon, Professor Bong-Geun Jun, Ms. Jinkyung Baek, and Dr. Naoko Aoki to give their comments on these developments for The Pulse.

Professor Chung-in MOON, Chair of Sejong Institute and and former Special Adviser of National Security and Foreign Affairs to the ROK President.

It was expected that North Korea would reactivate its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon because it has few other means for low-intensity provocation. This signals the beginning of escalating behavior.

If North Korea has reactivated its plutonium reprocessing activities openly, it is likely that it has also been producing highly enriched uranium clandestinely, strengthening its nuclear weapons capabilities. This highlights the urgency for dialogue and negotiation. Time is on neither side. Neither maximum pressure, nor strategic patience will work.

Since 2018, North Korea has abstained from engaging in provocative behavior, such as nuclear tests, ICBM or SLBM launches, or overt nuclear activities in Yongbyon, but the United States has not reciprocated. On the contrary, Washington has increased sanctions against Pyongyang. Thus, Pyongyang has been feeling a sense of betrayal.

The United States should provide concrete signals to convince North Korea that a working-level dialogue could lead to tangible outcomes, such as: selective sanctions relief, confidence-building measures – including an end of war declaration – and an American blessing for inter-Korean engagement.

Since Pyongyang again cut communication lines, South Korea has limited options other than persuading the United States to relax its sanctions and to facilitate inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Even China has limited leverage since Covid-19 has prevented active engagement with North Korea. Nevertheless, China could urge North Korea to engage with the United States and South Korea.

Professor Bong-Geun JUN,
Professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, KNDA.

Reprocessing of the spent fuels and operation of the 5W graphite-moderated reactor in Yongbyon are parts of a well-known, ongoing North Korean nuclear weapons program. North Korea could acquire additional plutonium about three nuclear bombs through this new round of reprocessing.

North Korea intends to acquire not only more plutonium and highly enriched uranium for traditional nuclear fission bombs but also other essential materials for thermonuclear hydrogen bombs, as it repeatedly declared. This is expected, since North Korea has repeatedly stated that it would both expand its nuclear arsenal and develop and acquire tactical and hydrogen nuclear bombs. It is urgent to freeze and shut down North Korean nuclear weapons-related activities quickly through negotiations and agreement between the United States and North Korea. A moratorium on nuclear tests or ICBM and SLBM tests is not good enough as long as North Korea keeps producing fissile materials for nuclear bombs.

As the current stalemate contiunues, North Korean nuclear arsenal keeps growing. Thus, the United States should reach out to North Korea without delay to restart nuclear negotiations.

Ms. Jinkyung BAEK,
Director of the Research Department at the East Asia Institute.

The release of the IAEA report coincides with Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. This underlines the fact that the North Korean nuclear issue ranks low on Biden’s list of foreign policy priorities. The Biden administration’s North Korea strategy review is essentially similar to Obama’s strategy of “strategic patience,” which did not yield any substantial results.

The United States must step up its reinforcement of the UN Security Council Resolutions in order to enforce a full-fledged strategy against North Korea’s continuous breaches. Furthermore, the North Korean nuclear issue requires multilateral cooperation among regional actors in the Asia-Pacific, notably between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Japan recently expressed its interest in holding “unconditional meetings” with North Korea; following this line of thought, Japan should pursue this aim from a multilateral perspective.

Dr. Naoko AOKI,
Research Associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and Adjunct Professor at American University.

Recent revelations that North Korea appears to have restarted its 5MW reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear complex and reprocessed spent fuel removed earlier from the reactor come as no surprise. This is because North Korea benefits from these actions militarily and potentially diplomatically at relatively low risk.

North Korea benefits militarily because by restarting the reactor, the country can create more material for nuclear weapons. The facility is North Korea’s sole source of plutonium and tritium production. It is important even if North Korea has relied more on facilities that enrich uranium to make fissile material in recent years.

By resuming reactor operations, North Korea also increases its leverage in any future nuclear negotiations. In other words, North Korea can ask for concessions just to stop the facility, should diplomacy resume.

North Korea likely calculated that its actions would not invite immediate retaliation. This calculation appears to have been correct, as the steps have widely been interpreted as lower-level provocations, unlike nuclear tests.

But this is a development with serious security implications for the United States and countries in the region. It is also a reminder that without prospects for diplomacy, North Korea will continue to improve its nuclear arsenal.


Photo: Dean Calma/IAEA

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