North Korean Sabre Rattling: Much Ado About Nothing?
Sometimes, we comment on events not because we see anything of pressing import, but because others do. Such is the case with the recent statement, reproduced in full below, from the Director of the North Korean Atomic Energy Institute. At almost exactly the same time, the KCNA reported the regime is “in the final stage” of developing a new observation satellite and “the world will clearly see a series of satellites…soaring into the sky at the times and locations determined by the [ruling Workers’ party] central committee.”
The gist of the nuclear statement is simple. The DPRK has and will continue to pursue its nuclear option. It will do so through ongoing investments and upgrading of the facilities at Yongbyon including (specifically mentioned) the 5 MW graphite-moderated reactor and enrichment activities and (implicitly stated) the mining of uranium, the milling of fuel rods and plutonium extraction activities—the latter of which are also located at the site. In a story at NKNews, South Korean analyst Chae Gyu-chul at the Institute for National Security Strategy added another project to the list: that the regime may be trying to expand the Soviet era IRT 2000 research reactor as well. (It is almost certain that there is a second enrichment site as well that to date remains undisclosed).
But we have been at this for over two-and-a-half years now. Similar statements were offered in April 2013 by the Atomic Energy Institute during the time of troubles and the roll-out of the byungjin line. Most analysts took the 2013 statements seriously and while Yongbyon has not been going full-speed-ahead over the entire time period, we now have a plethora of information on the activities. To stick with new information from this year alone at 38North, William Mugford provided an overview in April of the 5MW reactors operations—mixed—but pointed to construction elsewhere on the site. In August, Jeff Lewis dissected the uranium mining and milling part of this story. William Mugford and Jack Liu recently amplified their suspicions with respect to what used to be called the “radiochemistry laboratory” where plutonium was extracted.
And over at the Institute for Science and International Security, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini review all of their evidence with respect to developments—some going back years—at Yongbyon. (These mirror statements purportedly made by the IAEA’s Yukiya Amano, which in turn apparently draw on Albright’s earlier satellite analysis of the site; talk about the echo chamber). The Albright-Kelleher-Vergantini report is straightforward about what they can and can’t say. But clearly there has been a variety of construction going on at the site related to operations at the 5MW reactor and supporting facilities including a possible hot cell facility that would be used for separating out other isotopes of use to the nuclear program.
In sum the North Koreans appear to be doing what they said they would do on the nuclear front. But that does not mean that a test is imminent. A satellite launch is certainly more plausible, as long-range missile tests have not generated quite the level of international—and Chinese—condemnation that nuclear tests have. But although the country completed upgrades to the west coast launch site in July Jack Liu and Joseph Bermudez don’t find evidence from satellite pictures of Sohae that such a test is imminent either. We are just under a month out from the anniversaries that are likely to be test dates; the 70th anniversary of the founding of the party is October 10 (and if you want to go, Korea Konsult is offering a tour). And things could change. But right now, all we have is the statement.
So the interesting question is not that the North Koreans are quietly chugging along but why issue these statements now and do they matter? With respect to the second question, the Albright report and Chinese assessments from the spring (summarized here and here) constitute plausible ranges on all systems. The strategic question is whether an incremental accretion of capabilities changes the stability of the peninsula in any fundamental way. Unambiguous evidence of miniaturization would certainly generate a political firestorm (Bruce Klingner makes this point; his analysis from Heritage can be found here).
But short of that I am skeptical that there is anything new here. We are too preoccupied with small movements in capabilities that we can’t even track that clearly. My interpretation of the “why now” question has to do with North-South relations. The recent stand-down provided Pyongyang with an unfortunate lesson: that the instability paradox works two ways. They might have thought that their nuclear capability would affect crisis bargaining. But when Park refused to turn off the loudspeakers and the ROK returned fire, that was proven wrong. They may see surprisingly little return at the moment on cooperation with the South. A test—or simply rattling the sword—might be enough to effectively scuttle an agreement that probably looked like a capitulation to some in Pyongyang anyway.
North Korean Statement on Nuclear Program
Pyongyang, September 15 (KCNA) -- The director of the Atomic Energy Institute of the DPRK gave the following answer to question put by KCNA Tuesday as regards the public opinion being built up over the DPRK's nuclear activities:
Of late, institutions specializing in nuclear activities and media of the Western world including the U.S. have become vociferous about nuclear activities in the DPRK, saying satellite data made them capture fresh activity in a nuclear establishment in Nyongbyon and they are concerned about it.
As known by the world, the DPRK's access to the nuclear weapons is an outcome of the U.S. hostile policy towards it. Explicitly speaking, the DPRK took the measure for self-defense in the face of the U.S. extreme hostile policy and nuclear threats towards it.
As was clarified by a spokesman for the then General Department of Atomic Energy of the DPRK in April 2013, all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon including the uranium enrichment plant and 5 MW graphite-moderated reactor were rearranged, changed or readjusted and they started normal operation, pursuant to the line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of a nuclear force advanced at the historic plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea.
In the meantime, the U.S. anachronistic hostile policy toward the DPRK that forced it to have access to the nuclear weapons has remained utterly unchanged and instead it has become all the more undisguised and vicious with the adoption of means openly seeking the downfall of the latter's social system.
Scientists, technicians and workers in the field of atomic energy of the DPRK have made innovations day by day in their research and production to guarantee the reliability of the nuclear deterrent in every way by steadily improving the levels of nuclear weapons with various missions in quality and quantity as required by the prevailing situation.
If the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the DPRK and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time.