North Korea poses a variety of threats to its neighbors. In recent years, focus has been on its rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program and parallel developments in missile capabilities that allow Pyongyang to threaten ever more distant targets. These dangers complement more “traditional” threats posed by its conventional and special operations forces, and the rest of its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.
Frequently forgotten are dangers presented by North Korean “failures”: a flood of refugees triggered by instability or domestic crisis has been the most frequent concern. Another potential failure and regional security risk recently surfaced: the possibility that Mount Mantap, the site of North Korea’s nuclear test facility, might collapse. If it happens, the consequences could be severe.
North Korea has had six successful nuclear tests since 2006 — all at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Facility, a tunnel complex buried deep within Mount Mantap, a 2,200-meter-high mountain in the northeast that is less than 200 km from the border with China. The last test, on Sept. 3, which Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb, produced an artificial magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The test appears to have been the largest since a Chinese test in May 1993 and larger than any test conducted by either the United States or the Soviet Union since 1976.
Experts now fear that Mount Mantap is suffering from “tired mountain syndrome,” a phenomenon seen at U.S. and Soviet nuclear test sites. Tired mountain syndrome occurs when repeated nuclear explosions considerably alter the properties of a rock mass. A scientific paper explains that “fracturing and rock breakage are extensive and markedly increased, and permeability is appreciably increased both in the rock mass itself and along isolated tectonic faults.” Scientists worry that repeated tests can actually alter fault lines.
Satellite imagery showed that Mount Mantap moved during the last test, with a 34-hectare area on the peak of the mountain visibly dropping during the explosion. Since then, seismographs have detected three smaller temblors at the site. Since the area is not known for seismic activity — one reason it was selected as a test site — scientists first thought that the North had conducted more tests. They now conclude that repeated explosions introduced new stresses to tectonic plates. Some seismologists warn that tests could trigger an eruption in Mount Paektu, an active volcano 150 km from Mount Mantap, but most experts think that is a long shot.
Chinese experts are especially concerned that additional tests could lead to the collapse of Mount Mantap, which would be an environmental disaster. Dr. Wang Naiyan, former chairman of the China Nuclear Society and a senior researcher on China’s nuclear weapons program, warns that another test could cause the mountain to collapse on itself and release all the radioactivity that had been created by previous explosions. “Taking the roof off,” he said, “will let out many bad things.”
Wang’s comments are a window on Chinese concerns as they contemplate the consequences of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Chinese experts and policymakers have not worried much about being targeted by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but they have long been concerned about incidental dangers posed by Pyongyang’s determination to acquire nuclear technology and weapons. Of course, the chief danger is a conflict that would threaten regional peace and stability and engulf China. But just as worrisome is a technological failure in either the military or civilian nuclear effort that would create radioactivity which would threaten Chinese territory and citizens. Yanji, a city of 400,000 people, has grown accustomed to shakes triggered by North Korean tests. If the roof were to fall in at Mount Mantap, it would be threatened by a radioactive cloud.
Chinese experts and officials also quietly express concern about safety at North Korean nuclear facilities. They fear that the program has developed in isolation and that sanctions have prevented North Korea from learning best practices to ensure that all reactors and research are conducted in a prudent manner.
This poses a genuine conundrum for the rest of the world. North Korea is rightly sanctioned for defying United Nations Security Council resolutions and global opinion, and there are fears that any attempt to engage the North Korean nuclear community risks legitimizing its activity. Yet there are real dangers to the region if North Korea’s nuclear programs are uninformed about safety protocols and practices. While North Korean successes demand the most attention, it is time to again pay attention to the dangers posed by North Korean failures.