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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Yongbyon Restart

by | September 17th, 2013 | 07:00 am

Most readers of this blog are now aware of the possible moves to restart the 5MW reactor at Yongbyon. The story was broken by Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis in a post at 38North; David Albright and Robert Avagyan caught it at the Institute for Science and International Security as well. The evidence? New commercial satellite imagery from August 31, 2013 showing steam rising from a building believed to house the reactor’s steam turbines and electric generators.

The story comes in the wake of IAEA commentary on construction around the site at the end of last month as well. Several details emerged from that story. On the one hand, the construction and digging of trenches observed between March and June might be related to a “reconfiguration” of the reactor’s cooling system. This would allow the reactor to be restarted without rebuilding the cooling tower, destroyed for the news cameras in 2008 as part of the roadmap agreements reached in 2007. The IAEA report also suggested that the North Koreans may have a full core load of fuel, obviously a necessary but not sufficient condition to get it up and running.

On the other hand, the steam coming out of the adjacent buildings does not mean that the reactor is currently operational; a full restart could take six months or more, and is far from assured given how long the reactor had been shuttered.

Going further back in time, the construction at Yongbyon earlier in the year was also reported on 38North by Hansen and Lewis; that early story also bears re-reading as it laid out the roadmap to a restart.

Although the international community has taken the news as a surprise, the North Koreans have been pretty clear about what they are doing. Pyongyang announced in April its byungjin line of pursuing economic development and a nuclear capacity. Continuing to develop its arsenal implies either an expansion of the country’s HEU program—which other satellite information has suggested—a resumption of reprocessing spent fuel from the 5MW reactor or both. As recently as July—after things had purportedly cooled on the peninsula—North Korea again reiterated that it would not give up its deterrent until Washington abandoned its hostile policy.

The diplomatic reaction was pretty much as expected, except for a surprisingly strong response from an unnamed Russian diplomat to Interfax.  The comments did not reflect frustration at North Korea’s nuclear program, but a warning of safety risks (the potential for a “man-made disaster”). A discussion ensued online via the indispensible Nelson Report. Did the Russians know something about the engineering at the site that suggested vulnerability? Was this just pique at North Korean gamesmanship? And who was this official anyway?

Comment on the story was not limited to the blogosphere; official responses were swift but generally confirmed priors. China’s response, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, is worth citing in full.

“Q: A research institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies reportedly said yesterday that the lastest satellite image suggests that the DPRK seems to have restarted the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. What is China’s comment?

A: We have noted relevant reports. To achieve denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula and uphold peace and stability there and the Northeast Asia at large is China’s long-standing stance. It meets the common interests and calls for the concerted efforts of all relevant parties.”

What does that mean? Later in the same briefing the answer was made clear: the North Korean action—if there has been one—should not deter a resumption of the Six Party Talks. Answering a question on Glyn Davies’ visit to Beijing, the spokesman reiterated that “all relevant parties should create conditions for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks and be more committed to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, upholding peace and stability of the Peninsula and solving relevant issue through dialogue and consultation.” But China’s communications are so opaque that it is hard to tell whether the spokesman was expressing pique at the North Koreans, the US or both.

Glyn Davies, the Special Representative for North Korea Policy, also addressed the issue in Tokyo in response to a question about the 38North report. He refused to confirm whether American intelligence believed the plumes signaled a restart. But the intelligence clearly gave leverage to the US conception of the Six Party Talks themselves. Davies reiterated that the talks cannot be a venue for a de facto India-Pakistan outcome, in which North Korea is effectively acknowledged as a nuclear state; they have to be about denuclearization. We have yet to see any evidence from North Korea that they are interested in a denuclearization outcome, but there can be little doubt that North Korea knew the action would be observed and would play into the bargaining that will ensue.