It looks as though North Korea has restarted its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, a move that violates Pyongyang’s international pledges and threatens to reinvigorate its nuclear weapons program. It is not clear if the plant is in fact in operation, but it is certain that North Korea will use the possibility of a resumption of activity as a bargaining chip to force its interlocutors in the six-party talks back to the negotiating table. Those talks can only resume when Pyongyang agrees to honor its denuclearization pledge.
While it commenced operations in 1986, the 5 megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility has been in the spotlight for two decades, ever since the North conceded that it was using it to produce plutonium to use for a nuclear weapon. The program was slowed with the announcement of the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework in 1994, and was the subject of intense negotiations during the six-party talks. North Korea agreed to close the facility down to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization: Its cooling tower was blown up in June 2008 as a public statement of its fealty to that goal.
Since then, however, the nuclear talks have gone off the rails. International condemnation of North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests allowed Pyongyang to claim that the West, and the United States in particular, had not abandoned its “hostile policy” toward it and used that as an excuse to claim that it would not honor its denuclearization commitment. The six-party talks have remained suspended ever since, with North Korea demanding that it be recognized as a “nuclear weapon state” and the other parties refusing, countering that negotiations cannot resume until Pyongyang acknowledges its pledge to give up its nuclear weapons and related programs.
During that time, the North has conducted more nuclear and missile tests and revealed a uranium enrichment program that will provide the country with yet more raw material to build a bomb. Pyongyang has maintained a high volume of rhetoric, alternatively threatening its neighbors and then declaring itself a victim of U.S., Japanese and South Korean hostility when they take steps to protect themselves. In recent months, however, Pyongyang’s belligerence has been muted, as it has offered to resume discussions with Seoul over a variety of projects and it hosted a special envoy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
A decision to resume operations at Yongbyon would be a typical North Korean tactic: upping the ante to pull its negotiating partners back to the table and force them to resume aid in exchange for a halt to the nuclear restart. In other words, Pyongyang expects to be rewarded again for doing what it promised to do in the first place.
Pyongyang had threatened in April to restart the reactor, a step that U.S. officials called “extremely alarming.” Not only would the Yongbyon plant be able to produce about 6 kg of plutonium a year — enough for one or two bombs — but there is real concern about the stability of the facility itself. Russian diplomatic sources worry that “The reactor is in a nightmarish state. … For the Korean Peninsula, this could entail terrible consequences, if not a man-made catastrophe.”
It is not clear that Yongbyon is in operation. Satellite photos show preparations being made, such as drilling and installation of pumps to divert water for cooling. The graphite-moderated reactor is believed to have been linked to the cooling system of an adjacent light-water reactor facility under construction. White steam can be seen to be rising from a building next to the reactor that houses turbines and generators that are driven by heat created by the reactor. Experts note that the volume and color of the steam are consistent with that produced by an electrical generating system that is about to go back on line.
It is reckoned that North Korea already has enough plutonium for four to eight crude weapons. Resuming production at Yongbyon will allow that stockpile to slowly grow. Yet regardless of the status of that plant, the North’s uranium enrichment program continues apace as well; satellite photos show that the facility is expanding as well, which provides another source of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
North Korea cannot be allowed to blackmail the world into once again buying its nuclear weapon-making potential. Pyongyang cannot “sell that horse a third time.” But the only way that will happen is if all other parties in the six-party talks send a single unified message to the North Korean leadership. A readiness to talk about some problems does not give Pyongyang license to disregard its nuclear commitments. China in particular must demand that North Korea honor its pledges and not suggest that a smile is a substitute for serious negotiations.
As a first step, the Japanese government should consult with its U.S. and South Korean counterparts to develop a unified position. The repeated condemnations of North Korea are a start, but they are not a strategy.