Jeffrey LewisNorth Korea's Yongbyon Complex

Jon Herskovitz of Reuers penned an odd little news analysis the other day suggesting that North Korea might start from scratch on its bomb program, shifting from the well-developed infrastructure for producing plutonium at Yongbyon to an Iran-like centrifuge program.

This is nuts.

The entire article hangs on the following speculation by an unnamed South Korean intelligence source:

“It makes little sense to restore an obsolete (plutonium-based) nuclear complex. What makes much more sense is for them to work on the highly enriched uranium (HEU) programme,” said a well-informed South Korean government source, who declined to be named.

Oh, I see. Well, if he’s well-informed

Herskovitz tries this little hypothesis out on Dan Pinkston, David Albright and Sig Hecker — all of whom reach the opposite conclusion.

Pinkston: “North Korea is quite a way off from doing either” option of restarting the Pu program or making HEU.

David Albright : “I wouldn’t conclude [Yongbyon] is being abandoned…”

Sig Hecker: “It would make much more sense to restart the … reactor.”

Wow, great scoop there.

Is North Korea Restarting the Yongbyon Complex?

Herskovitz entire article is a sort of conspiratorial way to explain the curious fact that North Korea doesn’t seem to reversing the disablement steps (such as rebuilding the cooling tower at Yongbyon). “North Korea seems in no rush,” Herskovitz explains, “to restore its old plutonium-producing plant.”

Now this is a little strange.

To begin with, North Korea, in all probability, is reprocessing plutonium as we speak, adding bombs to its arsenal. (In mid-May, despite increased activity at Yongbyon, press reports suggested the IC had not detected any krypton gas, which would result from reprocessing the spent fuel. Hui Zhang wrote an interesting article arguing that it wouldn’t be surprising to miss to some of the signs. See: Is North Korea’s reprocessing facility operating?, July 23, 2009).

It would be nice to get an official confirmation from the US intelligence community, one way or the other, but given that the North Koreans say they are reprocessing — and for technical reasons doesn’t want to leave the fuel rods in the pond too long — I believe them.

So, this is really a question about whether North Korea why hasn’t North Korea begun to undo the several disablement steps agreed to under the Six Party Agreement — steps that would probably take about a year to reverse. These are things like rebuilding the cooling tower at Yongbyon that we all enjoyed watching get blow down — some readers had a better seat than others, I understand.

Competing Explanations

Not surprisingly, there are competing explanations for why North Korea is taking so long — although I don’t see what the big rush would be, since North Korea has lots of plutonium now and needs to restart the facility to finish a new load of fuel.

But for those who think North Korea is moving at something less than the optimal pace toward restart, I hear two explanations. These explanations that just happen to correspond to the policy preferences of the people involved.

One interpretation, offered by the “well-informed” ROK source is that if the North Koreans aren’t up to no good at Yongbyon, they must be up to no good somewhere else. This is the same logic that sent us on the wild goose chase for a secret reactor Kumchang-ri and a production program for HEU — neither of which turned out to exist.

The other view, of course, is the North Koreans may be chilling out as part of bargaining with the United States. That is the view expressed by David Albright, who wrote in an email to Herskovitz that:

For example, [North Korea] may be holding back in case negotiations restart,” he added, referring to the now-frozen talks with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Japan.

It is worth keeping this in mind when evaluating claims made by the “well-informed” South Korean source — the claim that North Korea is starting a secret centrifuge program probably derives from an assumption, not evidence.


  1. Daniel Pinkston (History)

    Some of my other comments to Jon on that story were not included in his piece. For example, I also said they could be doing many things that are not observable. And another main point that contradicts the “ROK source” is that it makes no sense to switch to a uranium bomb program because the political objective is to have a capability to strike U.S. territory, and pu is better for miniaturization.

  2. Rwendland (History)

    Sig Hecker noted in his last visit report that they had 80 cubic meters of high-level radioactive waste in the reprocessing plant to be treated, stored and disposed of: “They estimated that it would take them one year to finish the waste treatment job.” There also was some equipment maintenance backlog. Maybe they are progressing some of this before starting the next campaign. But I don’t know if sorting this out before the next reprocessing campaign is essential.