With All Eyes on Syria, Nuclear Reactor Switches On in North Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | September 13, 2013 | 4:27 AM EDT

An image from television shows the demolition of a 60-foot-tall cooling tower at North Korea’s nuclear complex in Yongbyon on Friday June 27, 2008 as part of an internationally-negotiated agreement. Now satellite imagery indicates that the reactor may soon be operating again. (AP Photo/APTN, File)

(CNSNews.com) – While the international community has been focused on the crises in Syria and Egypt, North Korea evidently has been quietly preparing to resume operations at a nuclear reactor which it agreed under an international deal eight years ago to shut down, before warning amid heightened tensions last April that it would restart.

Commercial satellite images captured in late August show columns of steam rising from a building alongside the five-megawatt plutonium-based reactor at Yongbyon, prompting experts at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies to say it will likely be operational shortly.

“The white coloration and volume are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation,” said analysts Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis.

They said the reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium a year, which the North Korean regime can use “to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile.”

In a separate analysis, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) noted in addition to the reactor developments that the North Koreans has also recently expanded a building housing a centrifuge plant for uranium-enrichment.

Pyongyang has said this is to obtain low-enriched uranium to fuel a separate light-water reactor under construction at the complex, although one of many unknowns in the North Korean program is whether it has also produced weapons-grade uranium, and if so, how much.

The Yongbyon complex, some 60 miles north of Pyongyang, houses both the five-megawatt, graphite-moderated reactor and an associated reprocessing plant and nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility.

Under an agreement at China-hosted at “six-party” talks, first hammered together in Sept. 2005 and then formalized in Feb. 2007, North Korea pledged to shut the facilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions. Among them, the Bush administration agreed to unfreeze $25 million in North Korean funds, frozen in its account at a Macao-based bank.

In July 2007 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the Yongbyon shutdown was complete, and in 2008 the main cooling tower at the site was demolished in a dramatic supposed symbol of Pyongyang’s commitment to the denuclearization deal.

But after that the six-party talks – involving the U.S., the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia – ran into more difficulties. In late 2008 they stalled amid disagreements over how to verify North Korean compliance with its commitments, and the talks have not reconvened since.

Pyongyang tested a nuclear device for a second time in 2009, and again early this year.

Last April, it announced plans to restart the Yongbyon reactor. It also vowed never to abandon its nuclear capability for political or economic benefits, and reiterated demands that the international community accept it as a nuclear weapons power.

Since then, tensions on the peninsula eased somewhat, and when President Obama met with his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping in June and again at the G20 summit in Russia last week, Xi expressed confidence that six-party talks could resume soon.

Although a White House official said after the G20 meeting that the U.S. saw no point in returning to negotiations “simply for the sake of a resumption of talks,” on Monday, the administration’s North Korea envoy Glyn Davies arrived in the region “to discuss North Korea policy” with officials in South Korea, China and Japan.

With the reactor now apparently on the verge of operation, however, it seems that the international standoff that has dragged on for two decades will continue. Attempts to negotiate a resolution under three consecutive U.S. presidents – Clinton in the 1994 Agreed Framework, Bush in the 2005/2007 agreements, and Obama in the short-lived 2012 “Leap Day deal” – all failed.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Thursday declined to comment on “intelligence matters,” but added that if the reports of reactor startup were true, “it would be a violation of the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, and, of course, contrary to North Korea's commitments under its September 19, 2005, joint statement.”

In South Korea, a foreign ministry spokesman told a briefing that the government was paying close attention to developments at Yongbyon.

‘Perceived American passivity’

Heritage Foundation scholar Bruce Klingner in an analysis Thursday said Pyongyang was likely encouraged by the Obama administration’s policy on Syria and its chemical weapons use – “a dizzying array of contradictory U.S. statements, crossed redlines, and reticence to fulfill declarations of intent.”

“To the degree that North Korea can penetrate this confusing political morass, the regime is probably heartened by signs of a declining American willingness to intervene overseas even when confronted by evidence of the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD),” he wrote.

“Pyongyang will conclude that President Obama’s bold rhetoric, including that directed against North Korea, was unlikely to be backed with significant military action,” said Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at Heritage’s Asian Studies Center.

“The regime will incorporate this perceived American passivity into its decision-making in future confrontations with Washington and Seoul.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow