Joshua PollackWhat sort of deal does North Korea expect?

While we’re waiting to hear whether US-DPRK talks ever get on track, it may be worth reflecting on just what Pyongyang imagined would come out of the Hanoi summit back in February.

Several hours after President Trump had his say, DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho appeared before reporters to explain that North Korea had been prepared to shutter all of the fissile material (plutonium and uranium) production facilities in the Yongbyon area, or words to that effect.

That wasn’t good enough for the Americans. It seems that the two sides remain entrenched in essentially the same positions they’ve held since October 2002: disagreeing over whether there is anything important outside of the familiar Yongbyon nuclear complex. This has been a recurring theme for years.

Last summer, after U.S. news media reports identified another site believed to be the location of an undeclared highly enriched uranium facility, a North Korean media commentary dismissed the very idea as “a fiction.” In September, Kim Jong Un dangled the dismantlement of Yongbyon in a joint statement with South Korean President Moon, making no mention of any nuclear facilities beyond it. This February in Hanoi, the gap remained unbridged.

So if the North Koreans won’t admit to having any additional uranium enrichment facilities, and the Americans keep insisting that they must, how are we supposed to reach an agreement? Lately, the North Korean Foreign Ministry has repeated a phrase, saying that Washington must change its “method of calculation.” What does that mean?

Here’s a hypothesis: what Kim is aiming at–Kim and his predecessors–is a Potemkin “denuclearization,” in which the North Koreans pretend to disarm, the rest of the world pretends to believe them, and everyone lives warily ever after.

An old pattern

If so, it wouldn’t be a new development. There was a time, before North Korea was known to have an enrichment program, when a single reactor at Yongbyon was the country’s sole avenue for producing meaningful amounts of fissile material. In 1992, seemingly under considerable pressure to meet long-deferred obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea declared its nuclear facilities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and allowed the IAEA to come visit. It didn’t go so well: the IAEA suspected that the North Koreans weren’t being fully forthcoming about the past uses of the site. Not only was there a former high-explosives testing facility there, but the inspectors were denied access to some iffy undeclared sites that appeared to be waste disposal facilities.

It appears that the North Koreans had expeditiously cleaned up the site before welcoming inspectors, removing any obvious signs of military R&D and attempting to hide evidence of undeclared reprocessing campaigns that probably left them with enough plutonium for a handful of weapons. Their efforts weren’t good enough to fool anyone, leading to a crisis in 1993.

(For more details, see the capsule history in chapter 6 of this paper from Stanford and Livermore Lab back in 2001. As it delicately concludes, “It is possible that entire [Yongbyon] site was a dedicated weapon facility that used a peaceful cover story. Given the activities observed, it is unlikely that the site was dedicated entirely to peaceful purposes.”)

If the 1992 cover-up was feeble, perhaps it was precisely because the North Koreans wanted to cultivate foreign suspicions that they had enough fissile material on hand to be dangerous… just without paying too steep a diplomatic price for it. These events took place not long after the first Gulf War, after all–the events that supposedly led former Indian Army Chief of Staff K. Sundarji to quip, “If you don’t want to be invaded by the United States, get nuclear weapons.” And perhaps it simply wasn’t possible to comprehensively hide the past uses of the complex. Call it making a virtue of necessity.

Something new about something old

That brings us to something new and interesting about the history of the Yongbyon facility. But it’s something that, by its nature, cannot be news to all interested parties.

I sometimes like to look through older material with fresh eyes, and this is one of those cases. The riotous growth in the quality and availability of commercial satellite imagery, among many other things, has made it much easier to understand the layout of the infamous 5 MW(e) reactor at Yongbyon. For example, in this nice Feb. 2018 photo from the site, you can see steam discharging from the turbine hall north of the main reactor building–a sign that the reactor was operating at that moment. The turbine hall (or generator hall) is where steam from the reactor is harnessed to produce electricity. That’s an important feature in any power plant, “experimental” or otherwise.

And that’s what caught my eye recently when I was thumbing through an old book, Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle, published by ISIS in 2000. It features older, much less good space images, which must have given Corey Hinderstein eyestrain. It wasn’t the sight of steam rising from the turbine hall–there’s no way you could make out that sort detail in these pics. It was the turbine hall itself.

It wasn’t there.

The reactor started operating in 1986. In 1989, as seen in a declassified (and probably somewhat downgraded) Soviet spy satellite photo appearing on page 66 of the book, the turbine hall… ain’t there.

I might have missed this absence entirely, but on the facing page of the book, there’s a somewhat crisper commercial photo of the same site taken 11 years later. And yes, there’s the turbine hall, plus adjoining structures, big as life.

You can find small, low-res versions of these pictures online, but they’re not much help. Newly minted MIIS researcher Maggie Croy, who has a way with image-processing software, kindly assisted by creating this nice animated .gif that morphs from one image to the other, using my cellphone pics of the book.

(Note we’ve made north down in these pictures. The satellite in each case took the picture from a northerly angle, making it easier to interpret them that way.)

Yongbyon 5 MWe reactor 1989-2000

At the top is the cooling tower. Below that is the spent-fuel storage building. Below that is the reactor itself. And below that is the turbine hall (in 2000)… or an empty space in the shadow of the reactor (in 1989).

As it happens, there is footage online documenting the first IAEA tour of Yongbyon, back in May 1992. At one point, the camera zooms in IAEA Director-General Hans Blix standing next to a generator inside the turbine hall. We even get a close-up view of a plaque mounted on the generator. The image quality is terrible, but it appears to say that it’s a turbine generator, produced at the Taean Machine Complex… in 1985.

Sure, guys. Whatever you say.