Joshua PollackNorth Korea: Peace or Else!

A statement appearing in KCNA on Tuesday — two of them, actually — lambaste the United States and “the puppet army of South Korea” for upcoming annual joint military exercises.

Ho hum. Nothing unusual there. Not only do we see this every year, we see it often. Twice Tuesday, and twice Monday, in fact. But Tuesday’s statements out of North Korea have grabbed a fair bit of attention for their choice of threat(s), should the allies carry out the exercises.

First is a signed commentary in the official newspaper Minju Joson, reproduced in KCNA:

If the U.S. and the south Korean bellicose forces persist in the anti-DPRK war exercises aimed to make a preemptive nuclear attack, this will compel the DPRK to build up its self-defensive nuclear deterrent and means of its delivery.

Second is a KCNA editorial, which connects the same threat to the failure of the U.S. to take up North Korea’s call for peace talks, back in January:

Should the U.S. persist in its unrealistic moves to stifle the DPRK in disregard of its realistic proposal, this will only compel it to boost its nuclear deterrent and its delivery means.

So, if North Korea really were to carry out these threats, how would it proceed?

First, it could announce a reprocessing campaign. But since Pyongyang already claims to have done what there is to do on that front, that would seem pointless.

Second, it could announce the successful weaponization of its plutonium, although that’s been done, too.

Third, it could test some missiles and declare them to be nuclear-capable. (Perhaps even the long-awaited Musudan missile.)

Fourth, it could test another nuclear device, despite signaling that it has no plans to do so this year.

Fifth, it could set about reversing the disablement of the Yongbyon 5 MWe reactor, most visibly by rebuilding the cooling tower. Restoring the Yongbyon reactor would also restore North Korea’s ability to produce more plutonium.

Among bad ideas, that last one takes the prize. However stubborn the Obama Administration might seem to Pyongyang right about now, I’d guess that nothing else the North Koreans could dream up [this side of, say, selling some plutonium abroad] would harden attitudes in Washington as much as restoring the reactor and starting it up again.

The second Foreign Ministry statement of January concerning peace talks actually pointed to the blown-up cooling tower as a sign of good faith. Bringing it back would not be too likely to soften any hearts around here, or so I’d imagine. It’s not an experiment worth trying, really.

Update | 2210. Northeast Asia Matters finds recent attacks on the upcoming joint exercises to be pretty much the same as ever.


  1. K

    The DPRK’s response on Tuesday to the CD address of the South Korean Deputy Minister for Multilateral and Global Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and later to the address of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ireland, included statements about continuing to develop their nuclear deterrent in the face of the US’ hostile behavior. The representative also spoke on the issue of dismantlement of its nuclear arsenal (only after US disarms/drops its hostile stance, and withdrawal (reitering that DPRK has a ‘legitimate security need’ in the face of the US nuclear threat).

  2. thermopile

    Does it have to be a visible re-enabling of the plant?

    In all the photos of the destruction of the cooling tower, there’s a nice, big river flowing directly behind the tower. It would be a simple matter to construct a cooling loop to the river, without all the activity associated with a tower. (See also: Box on Euphrates; Hanford B reactor)

    Doing it surreptitiously like this would give NK a possible element of surprise. Still, it just seems like the usual saber-rattling, and not an overt cause for alarm.

  3. Josh (History)


    A very good question. The Yongbyon-like reactor on the Eurphrates had no cooling tower for the very reason you say. But it appears that the seasonal variations in the flow of the Kuryong River would make it difficult if not impossible to operate a reactor at Yongbyon at certain times of year without a cooling tower. Sorry — I can’t find a reference for this claim at the moment, but will look around.

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