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Terrorism & Security

Report: North Korea resumes construction on nuclear reactor

Once completed, the North Korean reactor would be able to produce enough plutonium for a new bomb every year, according to the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

By Staff writer / May 17, 2012



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Middle East Editor

Ariel Zirulnick is the Monitor's Middle East editor, overseeing regional coverage both for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She is also a contributor to the international desk's terrorism and security blog. 

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North Korea has resumed work on an experimental light water reactor (EWLR) after several months of inactivity, which could expand its capacity for producing nuclear weapon material, according to a report from the North Korea analysis website 38 North.

That conclusion is based on commercial satellite imagery from North Korea's main nuclear site at Yongbyon that indicates construction of the reactor building may be almost done, according to 38 North, a project of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Images indicated that rapid progress on the EWLR halted in December – likely because of the onset of winter – and resumed in February or March.

"Pyongyang’s construction of an ELWR – which the North Koreans have indicated is the prototype for additional reactors – as well as a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon is an important indication of the North’s intention to move forward with the expansion of its nuclear weapons stockpile in the future," the report states.

The North Korean government insists that the reactor is for energy production, but it can also be used to build weapons, according to 38 North. Once operational, the EWLR could produce enough plutonium for a new bomb every year.

While North Korea is not yet producing any plutonium, it might be producing highly enriched uranium, nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker told Reuters. The country has substantial uranium reserves, so it could soon have "dual tracks" for producing nuclear weapons.

The construction work comes amid rumors that Pyongyang is working toward a third nuclear test, Reuters reports. 

In April, Pyongyang prompted international condemnation with a rocket launch that the US believes was a ballistic missile test.

Isolated Pyongyang's main economic and political partner is China (Reuters describes Beijing as "the closest thing to an ally that North Korea has"). And China has the most influence on the country and will be "key to whether North Korea presses ahead" with the nuclear test, according to Reuters. While Beijing has warned against a third test, it has not cut off aid or taken other steps to penalize Pyongyang.

It has backed UN sanctions on North Korea twice in the past and briefly cut off fuel after a previous missile test, but blamed the cessation on technical problems, Reuters reports.

In a second story, Reuters reports that, according to a source with connections to both Beijing and Pyongyang, China has been "quietly and gently" pushing North Korea to abandon its plans for a third test, but any retaliation it takes will "not be substantive."

Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, told Reuters that China is most likely to use "financial levers" to pressure North Korea.

The United States wants China to do more to rein in North Korea but China has little leverage over it and is unlikely to pull the plug on food aid due to fears of instability in its northeast, said [an unidentified Western diplomat] and Jin. 

"China can't stop food aid. If that stops, it would endanger the regime," the envoy said of North Korea's leadership.

The main factor keeping China from using harsh measures to restrain North Korea is the fear of a destabilising exodus of refugees into northeast China, preceded or followed by collapse of the North Korean regime.

 "Experience has shown that sanctions have little impact on North Korean decision-making. And, of course, the comprehensive sanctions regime will be sabotaged by China, for whom a nuclear North Korea is a lesser evil than an unstable and or collapsing North Korea," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kookmin University

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