North Korea: A Race to Nuclear Energy

Jean-Baptiste Roncari, translated by Lucie Perrier
14 Février 2015

Satellite pictures suggest that North Korea have reactivated the main reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear power plant, located north of the capital. Because of this, the totalitarian state would now be able to produce six kilograms of plutonium a year, a sufficient amount to develop a nuclear bomb.

Archives/Ed Jones/AFP
Archives/Ed Jones/AFP
The Yongbyon site specializes in nuclear research. Ten business sectors are distinguished there, and range from an institute of radioprotection to a research center for nuclear energy, including a radiochemistry laboratory. In this large complex the 5 megawatt reactor represents the main source of plutonium. Though it was shut down following various international agreements the reactor seems to have been active for some time. Satellite pictures tend to confirm what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had already noted in the end of August 2013. The resumption of the activity had then been supposed given "the emanations of vapor and release of excess cooling water".

Despite warnings from the international community, President Kim Jong-un does not seem to want to discontinue the nuclear advances of his country. The reactor has already allowed him to bring three nuclear tests (October 2006, May 2009 and February 2013) to successful conclusions. The resumption of the activity of this reactor, in spite of the past agreements, allows him to produce an assured quantity of plutonium for the next few years.

North Korea, further marginalized by nuclear energy

At the beginning of 2015, the country was prepared to review its nuclear intentions, on the sole condition that the United States would cease their traditional annual military maneuvers on South Korean territory. This request is not new, but the lack of trust between the two countries could explain the status quo of the situation. South Korea and the United States assert that they conduct purely defensive military exercises, in order to prevent possible aggression by North Korea. This raises the question of whether or not the reactivation of the reactor is the result of these tensions, if not only an additional means of pressure.

In any case, North Korea has long been a marginal country. Known for being the most secluded state in the world, it is also the only one to have withdrawn from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NTP).

Crédit Reuters
Crédit Reuters
Countries that have signed the treaty, being the majority of countries in the world, have sworn not to assist another country in acquiring additional nuclear weapons if they own them or not to seek them if they do not possess them. Of course North Korea perceives this as being contrary to its interests and wishes to have this dissuasive weapon at ease. In addition, the country is not concerned with UN sanctions for breaking the international community warnings against testing atomic weapons in order to acquire a nuclear arsenal. 

How much power at what cost?

What, then, is the current nuclear capacity of North Korea? The continued activity of the nuclear reactor is in in line with the three nuclear tests carried out. However, this is the only visible tip of the iceberg because the country is still extremely secluded and reliable information is difficult to obtain. Thus, on May 17 2013, a Yonhap military report corrected estimates that had been made in the country concerning the number of missiles it owned. It did not possess 94 short-range missiles, but 150. It is with the same caution that we must consider the estimates that we have on North Korean nuclear power. Despite having closed in 2007 and officially shut down in 2008 after the destruction of its cooling towers in accordance to past agreements, the Yongbyon nuclear complex has resumed activity since 2013, according to satellite images. The latter was supplemented with the most recent addition images showing a recovery in activity of the main nuclear reactor of the complex.

In the light of this information, should we fear a nuclear threat from North Korea? We should be reminded that the country, which possesses nuclear weapons, would destroy itself in the process of using one against another country. Regardless of whatever nuclear power it may possess, North Korea is as much a threat to itself as it is to other countries. North Korea might ultimately take into account the diplomatic fallouts engendered by its behavior because new sanctions await each violated agreement.