Jeffrey LewisYongbyon 5MWe Restart

Yep, the Norks are firing up the ol’ gas-graphite reactor at Yongbyon just like they said they would in April.

With Yongbyon breeding plutonium and twice as much floor space at the enrichment facility, the North Koreans are probably happy to keep talking.

Here are the initial stories from Kyodo and AP, as well as my piece with Nick Hansen.

38North provided Nick and I  with the satellite image showing steam coming from the turbine building, while Kyodo’s Tomo Inoue is citing “diplomatic sources” in Asia.

As it happens, Glyn Davies is traveling in the region at the moment — so its a good bet Davies briefed similar images to our allies in South Korea, is now telling the Chinese and will tell the Japanese once he gets to Tokyo.  Whether the leaks to Kyodo are from the briefers or the briefees, I don’t know.

Comments

  1. David Watson (History)

    Strategic patience is working out great!

  2. Cthippo (History)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems like new ground in the arms control field…

    In every other cast that I’m aware of, once a nation crossed the nuclear threshold the international community whined and sulked and gnashed it’s teeth, and then got over it and assumed the newest member of the nuclear club would keep on making bombs. No one worried too much about the Soviet’s second bomb, or China’s or even Pakistan’s. It’s pretty well assumed that once a nation demonstrates the capability to build and detonate a nuclear device that they will continue building, and to a certain extent detonating, devices, and will at some point deploy usable weapons. Why are we surprised that North Korea is doing exactly this?

    Furthermore, there has never, as far as I know, been a serious attempt to get a nation, once it has joined the club, to give up it’s nuclear weapons. It has always been assumed that once they make the effort to get the bomb, they’re going to keep it and we adjust our thinking appropriately. Once again, why should North Korea be any different?

    I understand that restarting Yongbyon is a significant milestone and that this is fascinating stuff to wonks (myself included), but beyond that I feel like there is a continual sense of surprise in the west whenever the North Koreans do something that it makes sense for them to do and that every other state which has crossed the nuclear threshold has done.

    The better question, I believe, is how large of a strategic stockpile do they think they need and what is the capability of their delivery systems.

    I predict that once they feel that they have enough deliverable weapons for their minimal deterrence needs, and therefore a little breathing room, the North Koreans will resume testing to validate miniturized designs, demonstrate a multi-stage thermonuclear capability (maybe) and at some point do small scale testing to come up with a single point safe design.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Cthippo wrote in part;
      “Furthermore, there has never, as far as I know, been a serious attempt to get a nation, once it has joined the club, to give up it’s nuclear weapons. It has always been assumed that once they make the effort to get the bomb, they’re going to keep it and we adjust our thinking appropriately. Once again, why should North Korea be any different?”

      South Africa was subjected to a disarmament campaign, and disarmed (albeit almost entirely due to internal motivations).

      North Korea is seen as a couple of standard deviations above and beyond in risk of war / destabilization / using a nuke. Which is saying something given Israel’s relationships in its neighborhood and Pakistan’s conflicts with India.

      Also; Japan and South Korea are technically fully capable nuclear weapons threshold nations, given their peaceful civil nuclear programs and academic research. North Korea destablizing and continuing nuclear weapons armament highly likely leads to a defensive nuclear arms race in Asia. This is seen as contrary to disarmament and minimizing the risk of another nuclear war.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I see an increasing pattern of refusal to accept new proliferators as acceptable members of the international community. When the U.S., Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China, developed nuclear weapons, the NPT did not yet exist and there was no norm against acquisition. Israel developed its weapons before most nations (including France and China) had ratified the NPT. India and Pakistan detonated theirs in 1998 after nearly all nations had signed the NPT, and were quickly sanctioned for it even though both had refused to sign the NPT.

      North Korea developed nuclear weapons after signing the NPT, and is therefore a “cheater” on the NPT norm and merits additional sanctioning. Iran, which also signed the NPT, is currently being sanctioned because it is suspected of wanting to cheat and for refusing to be transparent.

      The answer to how many nuclear weapons North Korea “needs” is zero. North Korea is under no genuine external threat – provided it does not act provocatively toward its neighbors. Building nukes and threatening to use them is highly provocative, and invites the very intervention they are ostensibly trying to deter.

      Simply allowing North Korea to further test thermonuclear devices, long-range missiles, and miniaturized designs to marry the two is not in the U.S. national interest. At some point, if the U.S. is rational, the U.S. will forcibly stop this particular progression of events.

    • kme (History)

      I believe that the Ukraine was also disabused of the notion that it should hold onto the nuclear weapons that it inherited from the USSR.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      kme wrote:
      I believe that the Ukraine was also disabused of the notion that it should hold onto the nuclear weapons that it inherited from the USSR.

      I don’t think the Ukraine had any interest or intention to hold on to them, unless I recall incorrectly…

    • ulankl (History)

      “how large of a strategic stockpile do they think they need and what is the capability of their delivery systems.”

      I guess, about 70-100 warheads should be enough for DPRK, and DPRK will have about 50-70 warheads in 2020.

  3. Gregory Matteson (History)

    At the moment, do we have any levers at all to move NK?

    BTW, Jeffrey, saw you on BBC News.

    • Cthippo (History)

      I would say we have some big ones, but they’re carrots, not sticks, and so no one in the US dare reach for them.

      The biggest one, the one the North Koreans really seem to want, or at least talk about a lot, is a bilateral US – NK defense treaty, or, in simpler terms, a US guarantee of the continuation of the Kim dynasty.

      On the smaller end, they want food and fuel and a reduction of sanctions, two of which the US et al can certainly provide. The amount of leverage provided by these carrots is no doubt limited, but it’s also not zero.

      The language of American diplomacy is often confrontational, we’re going to “punish the regime” or “Force them to give up their…” or whatever else it may be. Likewise, we tend to define our diplomatic goals in very vague terms; “Discouraging further use” or “sending a message” or “bringing democracy to the region”. So often the aggregate message is “We’re not clear on what we want, but we’re going to kick someone’s ass to get it”.

      This is not a good starting point for seeking a win-win agreement between two sovereign states that reduced the security concerns of each. Of course, It is often not clear to me that win-win is the goal.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Cthippo says, “I would say we have some big [levers], but they’re carrots, not sticks, and so no one in the US dare reach for them.” I guess I would disagree that the U.S. is unwilling to use carrots. We have tried carrots in the past, and may do so again. So long as the carrots are not too expensive, and are both appropriate and effective, carrots are obviously cheaper than the stick of military action and potential war.

      The big carrot Cthippo mentions, “bilateral US – NK defense treaty” might be acceptable if it only means no U.S. attack or invasion or coup plot, provided North Korea dismantles (permanently) its nuclear weapons program. If it instead means “a US guarantee of the continuation of the Kim dynasty,” that is clearly a nonstarter, unless we suppose that Kim is planning significant political reforms.

      With regard to the lesser carrots, “food and fuel,” I don’t see the U.S. being unwilling, so long as any aid is modest – not enough to provide North Korea a “profit” on its costly nuclear weapons program. As for “a reduction of sanctions” (trade, not aid), this also is reasonable – for the right deal.

      The biggest carrot of all is economic reform. All concerned – U.S., China, South Korea, etc. – would much prefer that Kim reform his economy, so that North Korea can feed its own people, etc. Only North Korea’s leaders, not some outside power, can make this choice. China and many other countries have already shown that economic reform is consistent with maintaining an authoritarian regime. If the young Kim hopes to live a long and prosperous life, he will choose economic reform over stagnation.

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