Friday, September 23, 2005

North Korea's Nuclear Ghost Town

Near the village of Kumho, on North Korea’s northeastern coast, the partially completed shell of the reactor containment building for light-water reactor Unit 1 rises from the countryside. Site preparations for Unit 2 are completed, but concrete was not yet poured when construction was suspended in 2003.

Work was suspended in 2003, and the site is now a lonely place. Where more than 1,500 construction workers once labored, now only a few more than 100 people live in the construction village. Many of the living and community quarters are empty. A skeleton crew takes care of preserving the equipment and documentation until . . .

Until when?
The twin reactors belong to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization – known by its initials as KEDO. The international consortium was created in 1995 to fulfill the promises made to North Korea in the 1994 Agreed Framework.

In that deal, Pyongyang agreed to shut down its one operating reactor, stop construction on two others and leave the nuclear fuel untouched rather than extracting plutonium from the spent fuel rods. In return the U.S. promised to provide 500,000 tons annually of heavy fuel oil to burn in power plants and arrange to build two modern light-water nuclear power plants.

As everyone knows, that deal unraveled in 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of being engaged in a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Washington said, and the press reported as fact, that Pyongyang’s delegates had confirmed the enrichment story. Pyongyang says its negotiator’s remarks were misconstrued. (For a detailed examination of this issue see Selig Harrison’s article “Did North Korea Cheat?” in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Affairs).

Nevertheless, Washington stopped shipment of heavy oil in December of that year and work on the two reactors, then about 35 per cent completed, was also suspended. North Korea restarted the reactor at Yongbyon, removed the spent fuel for reprocessing and expelled international inspectors. In February this year it announced that it was a nuclear weapons state.

The reactors at Kumho were slow to get going. From the beginning, Congress balked at having anything to do with the project and never appropriated funds to help build them (they did pay for the oil). That left South Korea and Japan to foot the bill, and it took five years before funding arrangements were finalized and eight years before the first concrete was poured in 2002 (ironically only two months before the agreement unraveled).

Pyongyang didn’t help its cause with such provocations as beaching a midget submarine off South Korea’s northeastern coast in 1996. That caused Seoul to suspend energy aid for a while. In 1998 it test-tired a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan, which, not surprisingly, annoyed Tokyo. But by 1999 most of these difficulties had been resolved, and work proceeded.

South Korea and Japan have sunk about $1.5 billion into the project. The main components of the nuclear steam supply system, including the reactor cores as well as cooling pumps and control rooms panels have been purchased. They are being maintained under “mothballs” at the manufacturing sites. This means they are swathed in plastic sheeting and smothered with nitrogen to prevent corrosion.

So What Next for KEDO?
KEDO itself continues to go through the motions. Officials still hold meetings with their North Korean counterparts to iron out problems. Indeed, KEDO is one of the few forums where Americans maintain something like normal social and commercial intercourse with North Koreans. The consortium is set to expire on Dec. 1, 2005 unless the board agrees to extend its life for another year, as it did last year.

Conspicuously missing on the KEDO board are the Chinese. The consortium, initially made up of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, has added such participants as Chile and Uzbekistan. It should invite the Chinese and Russians, both parties to the six party talks, to join. When the Agreed Framework was negotiated in 1994, China was almost incidental to the issue; now it is pivotal.

During the recent negotiations in Beijing, Washington balked at Pyongyang’s demands that it be allowed to operate civilian nuclear power plants. At China’s urging it reluctantly agreed to consider the matter at a later date. Later Pyongyang said it needed a reactor before it could move on dismantling its nuclear program, seeming to throw the agreement in jeopardy.

North Korea could be trusted with modern light water reactors because they require slightly enriched uranium to run (North Korea’s old-fashioned graphite-moderated units run on naturally occurring uranium). Since the North supposedly had no enrichment capability it would have had to rent the fuel from abroad and return it after it was used. That way no plutonium could be recovered for bombs.

But if North Korea can enrich uranium, as the U.S. suspects, and therefore can make its own light-water reactor fuel even at the very low enrichment levels required for normal reactor operations, this safeguard is removed (not to mention possibly being made into highly enriched uranium suitable for atomic bombs). But does North Korea have an enrichment program?

Washington will be reluctant to agree to resumption of the work at Kumho until it is satisfied that the North does not have this capability. This will be difficult. North Korea’s reactors and other nuclear facilities are well known. Intelligence satellites regularly monitor them. But can anybody say within 500 miles where even a suspected enrichment site might be located?

It may be difficult for Washington to concede that such a program does not exist. It would mean admitting that it exaggerated North Korea’s interest in enriching uranium, much as it exaggerated the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After all, North Korea’s supposed secret program to enrich uranium was the reason – or, if you prefer, the pretext – for breaking the 1994 accords.

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