Andreas PersboDPRK: Back to Square One

Cross-posted from Verification, Implementation and Compliance.

The monitors have been switched off. The cameras are being removed from their mounts, and the seals are broken. The guesthouse just off the main site no longer houses the IAEA three-person team or the four-person US experts group. By now, the equipment is probably being packed into boxes by the former North Korean hosts, after which it will be carefully catalogued and transferred to storage in some building on the sprawling Yongbyon site. There, it will gather dust until the next time inspectors visit the facility. That is, if there will be a next time.

North Korea threatens to restart the facility, and there have been some educated guesses as to how fast this could be done. These guesses range from a couple of weeks, to six months, to possibly longer. Undeniably, it will take a year to get the entire facility back in order again, but some critical processes, such as the reprocessing of spent fuel, might get up and running by the summer of 2009. And this is possibly why the Russian Foreign Minister is about to visit Pyongyang quite soon, and why the Chinese are placing frantic phone calls to Washington DC.

But what are the North Korean’s required to do to get the plant up and running again? Despite wishes to the contrary, the agreed minute on disablement was never released to the wider arms control community. However, some details were nevertheless leaked, quite possibly since some involved principals on the US side felt that the disablement steps were wholly inadequate.

The first disablement action was to unload the 5MWe reactor, and transfer spent fuel to the cooling pond. This action does not appear to have been completed. The North Korean’s would now speed up their unloading operations, and transfer the remaining spent fuel rods to the cooling pond. It is possible that they would then ask the director of the Fuel Manufacturing plant to transfer the fresh load of fuel (pictured) to the GCR for reloading.

However, a number of immediate tasks would need to be completed before then. First, the reactor’s director would need to instruct his people to repipe the secondary cooling system and, obviously, rebuild the cooling tower, or jury-rig the system somehow. This is not likely to be completed before summer, so do not expect to see steam rising over Yongbyon until autumn. Naturally, the construction of the tower can be tracked by satellite. The reactor also needs to have its control rod mechanism reconnected.

At the reprocessing facility, work may progress slightly faster. The drive mechanism between the spent fuel receiving building and the hot cells need to be reconnected, and two steam lines would need to be re-attached and pressure-tested. Moreover, the drive mechanism for fuel cask transfers needs to be replaced, as well as some hot-cell doors. After these tasks are completed, the reprocessing facility is mostly ready for action. This can be done fairly soon, possible before July. The start of a reprocessing campaign can be detected through the release of radionuclides into the atmosphere.

The Fuel Fabrication Plant has also undergone some ‘disablement’. In order to get the plant back in operation, the site director needs to reinstall all three uranium ore concentrate dissolver tanks, all seven uranium conversion furnaces, metal casting furnaces and the vacuum system, and eight machining lathes. Again, this is something that can be done in a matter of months.

The pressing question is, of course, what happens next? The ejection of IAEA monitors and US experts will lead to a substantial degradation in knowledge of ground truth. While the North is unlikely to substantially add to its fissile material stockpile in 2009, larger scale production may be likely in the coming year. Of course, a new nuclear test cannot be ruled out. It’s very likely, even, that the test site director has already received instructions to elevate his level of readiness.

Personally, I find it very difficult to see any easy way out of this predicament.


  1. V.S. (History)

    Some comments:

    1) Here we see one of the consequences of the undecisiveness of the international community and the “Babel Tower” effect inherent to the system.

    When DPRK withdrew from the NPT back in 2003 (with the funny way it did) some of the pivotal players preferred to live in a state of denial than face reality. Namely Japan and South Korea, even today, prefer to say that the withdrawal was void and didn’t bear any legal effects thus the DPRK is still party to the NPT, a member-state that violates the Treaty. They thought maybe that this would keep open the venues to the Security Council and hold the DPRK accountable. OK, but then they resume the six-party-talks and strike deals with the violator and beg them to accept safeguards on a voluntary basis. Whatever. Then the US and others didn’t want to displease their Northeast Asian allies and went with it. They were not saying the same things but they were not saying anything else either. In the NPT PrepComs and RevComs there was a discussion of whether the nametag of the DPRK should be on the floor or not. In the end it was kept by the Chairman, but it had to remain in the room. That was agreed, not improvised… The IAEA had no clue of what to do and when asked they were saying that this is an issue that the NPT members should decide (who is party to their treaty and who is not) and let them know. So the years went by and North Korea, the No.1 violator and threat had the priviledge to be the only state in the world for which safeguards was a favor they did to the international community and for which they gained political capital within the 6-party-talks. Even the NPT outliers have INFCIRC/66 safeguards in place but the DPRK doesn’t. The DPRK used to have INFCIRC/66 safeguards until 1985 when it adhered to the NPT. Then in 1992 concluded their Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement, and after 2003, well they do as they please while others bury their heads in the sand. Now they can play around as they wish, kicking IAEA out and reinviting them back in again whenever they please or whenever they obtain gains for this, exploiting all this mess created by the indecisiveness and by the inability of states to reach an understanding first with reality, then among themselves.

    2) I remember what one of the inspectors in the DPRK said in a presentation. That calculations about the time North Koreans need to complete a task tend to be wrong because they take under consideration all the safety and personnel protection measures and procedures required. Norks disregard such mundane things. For a worker’s state, they surely don’t give a s**t about workers’ lives and health. IOr is it that its the workers’priviledge to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Revolution?

    3)Don’t worry. Soon they’ll get rewards and let the IAEA guys back in. It’s good business for them. They keep selling the same thing to the same buyers again and again. They are cool, we are fool.

    In conclusion: DECIDE ALREADY. WHAT IS THE FRACKEN STATUS OF THE DPRK? The PrepCom in May or the next RevCOn is the place to decide. Are they in the NPT or not. (I believe they are not). If they are, take them to the Security Council or do something. If they are not them tell that to the IAEA and demand from the Norks to sign some kind of standing agreement, INFCIRC/66 style or whatever. But don’t let them have their little playground and don’t accept them doing us a “favor” or “gestures of good will” each time they accept inspectors. In the end, they need the world and not the other way around.

  2. Rwendland (History)

    Sig Hecker’s latest visit report says they have less than a quarter of a load of clad fuel rods for the 5MWe reactor. Presumably they would want to do a complete fuel change, which requires machining and magnesium alloy cladding rods originally intended for the 50MWe reactor. Sig writes “These operations would require the reconstitution of parts of the fuel fabrication facility, including the machine shop. Such actions would most likely take close to one year.” So I doubt the 5MWe reactor will be running this year.

    I wonder if DPRK is considering finishing the 50MWe reactor rather than fixing the 5MWe reactor? A few years back Sig reported that might be doable with 1 to 2 years work. But his latest report says he believes that the 50MWe reactor is not salvageable – hopefully that is the actual position.

  3. Andreas Persbo

    Rwendland. I seem to recall that Sig wrote that it was the DPRK director that said that it was doable in a couple of years. Sig himself had no view. But I might be wrong. Nevertheless, your fuel point is very good.

  4. Rwendland (History)

    Andreas, yes it was the DPRK director’s view. Sig’s 2005 presentation slides say “50 MWe reactor … Ready to resume construction soon … DPRK did not give us an estimated completion date – Director implied a couple of years, rather than five or six”.

    Rather more optimistic than Sig’s 2004 report that the “The [50MWe] reactor and the construction site look in a bad state of repair. It would require a major construction program to finish the reactor.”

    But if the UK could get the same sized Calder Hall 1 from green-field to criticality in under 3 years, then finishing the Yongbyon 50MWe might realistically be possible within 2 years. If they intend a serious nuclear weapons program now rather than political positioning, for them this might seem a better way to go if still practical. But the political impact would be dangerous. Should this possibility be seriously considered?

  5. Nick Nolan (History)

    “They are cool, we are fool.” analyss from V.S. seems about right. South Korea and Japan don’t have neither the muscle, nor will to confront North Korea. Why should they? As long as they can pay peanuts that keep the lonely dictator happy in his gage, they favor current situation.

    If they are right, and NK can be contained, this seems OK strategy. Only if something bad happens: Kim Jong-il becomes too bold, civil unrest or coup, or if U.S. loses patience, thing can get ugly.

  6. MWG

    It is possible that this marks a permanent turn by North Korea away from engagement over its nuclear program. In that case there’s not much we can do.

    But I think it is equally possible that this is simply another tantrum, after which North Korea hopes to be bribed back to the table. That’s a movie we’ve seen before.

    In either scenario, the Initial Actions agreement gives us some breathing space – at least a few months and perhaps closer to a year. Any idea how important the cooling tower was, and how long it would take to put in place an alternate cooling system?

  7. J House (History)

    As the NK door was hitting the behind of the last UN inspector to leave,I guess that breath of ‘fresh air’ just left the lungs of the new White House and the ‘arms control community’.
    Alot has been said on ACW about the previous administration’s ‘failed’ 6 party approach to NK, and the fact that NK increased its stockpile and conducted further ballistic missile testing during the Bush terms but alas, that is history.
    The real question is what does NK want, and are we going to give it to them?

  8. MarkoB

    Politics lies at the centre of arms control processes, not fuel rods and the like. You can’t make an analysis of technical timelines and then make a political consclusion at the end (the last sentence); that’s fallacious in kinda the same way that David Hume argued going from an is to an ought is fallacious.

    Granted the technical timeline is important to appreciate the gravity of the North’s moves and to assess policy options, but they don’t tell us anything about the underlying political processes.

    North Korea is actually trying to improve relations with the United States.

    There is an easy way out, namely returning to the Clinton admin approach of direct, high level, US-DPRK talks. On Obama official has stated to the Japan Democratic Party that the admin will abide by the six party talks process, but this is mainly a Bush thing. Why have the six party talks all of a sudden become so holy?

    Why exclude a priori direct bilateral talks?

  9. rkelly (History)

    Perhaps we should await the arrival of Kim’s successor.

  10. Yossi

    It seems to me that the only strategy out of this is swamping NK with unconditional aid. the leader will have difficulty stopping it and it’ll crack the regime. The problem is that the West is listening to his primitive instincts not to reason.

  11. J House (History)

    We should make a distinction between NK’s possible effort to improve relations with the U.S. and their desire to retain a nuclear capability.
    Their leaders know that no country that has nuclear weapons w/LR ballistic missiles has been invaded, conquered, annihilated, etc. since they were invented. Iran also knows this.
    Then you add in the prestige factor and the possibility that you might just get a seat at the table.
    It seems, without them, the Dear Leader’s regime cannot bask in its international glory.
    It will be interesting to see what they want, regardless the approach.

  12. Andreas Persbo

    That North Korea attaches great importance to its nuclear arsenal is an obvious point. Yesterday’s statement by KCNA, that the commencement of nuclear war is just a matter of time, should serve as a stark reminder of this. The question is whether they’re happy with their current fissile material stockpile, or whether they want to increase it. I think its relatively clear that they could reprocess another bunch of fuel before Christmas, whether they then opt to restart the 5MWe or go down another route remains to be seen.

    I think, however, that an important point in the discussion here has been that the disablement actions have given the six parties, and others, important breathing space. And, as I point out in the post, many DPRK activities can be monitored remotely (and I am sure ISIS is already budgeting a fresh set of images of Yongbyon for the coming year).

  13. J House (History)

    You have to wonder what the NK calculus was to kick out the inspectors 3 months into the new U.S. admin.

    Do they believe the risk of attack was considerably lower with the incoming admin and decide to up the ante and see where the red lines are now drawn?
    It wouldn’t suprise me if they threaten to try another bomb test in the next 12 months (and follow through if they don’t get their aid or whatever it is they want now)

  14. Drew (History)

    Can the DPRK reconstitute all of the elements you talk about without importing any parts/pieces? If not, are any of the imported items things that are relatively difficult to acquire (i.e., likely to be under export restrictions, are on UNSCR annex lists, etc.)? Can the US, Japan, China, ROK, et al do anything to make it more difficult for the DPRK to obtain these necessary items, if indeed they need to be imported?

  15. Andreas Persbo

    Drew. I might be mistaken, but I believe that they can reconstitute all elements without import. It’s pretty basic stuff, and some actions were probably selected since they were quite reversible. That doesn’t mean that it will be cheap for the North Koreans to repair the facility. In particular, the tower will require some manpower and concrete to re-raise. The North Koreans like to do things on the cheap, for sure, but they are not stupid, incompetent or reckless, so they’re likely to want to test their repairs for a while before actually restarting operations.

    Perhaps someone (Richard maybe) should think about the capital investment (both real and human) needed to restart the thing. Might it be too costly for the impoverished North?

  16. Rwendland (History)

    The only thing I can think of that DPRK might need to import are chemicals for reprocessing, such as Tributyl phosphate. I doubt the capital investment costs to restart the 5MWe are significant compared to the staffing costs of the centre. If they are thinking of finishing the 50MWe reactor, the electricity generating side probably is a significant capital cost, if they bother with that.

  17. Oliver

    Couldn’t we just squeeze the DPRK balls by denying any food help until they return to the 6P-talks and return to the disarmament schedule? Or is this just too harsh and they don’t care about food?

    Just my $0.02

  18. chad (History)

    @ Oliver

    I’m pretty sure they would go without food aid and just wait until the west caves in to respond to the ensuing humanitarian disaster.