North Korea News: Yes, You Should Worry About North Korea Going Nuclear, But Not For the Reason You Think

North Korea’s nuclear program is an ongoing point of crisis in the international system, but beyond the political and media rhetoric about the threat North Korea represents to the world, it is useful to take a closer look at what nuclear potential Pyongyang really has. North Korea’s potential to develop a civilian nuclear program depends on three main factors: raw materials, reactor technology, and refining capacity.

First, what we do know is that North Korea does possess extensive deposits of uranium, but there is uncertainty about the amounts available, as well as which are, and are not, operational. The Hamhung Uranium Deposit was reported by North Korea in 1964 and said to hold approximately four million tons of extractable uranium, but these numbers are unverifiable at this point in time. The list of mines in North Korea that extract uranium, but also other minerals like monazite, a phosphate mineral that contains rare earth metals, is quite extensive: Ch'olsan, Haegumgang, Hwangsan, Hyesan, Kujang, Kumchon, Musan, Najin (since 1961 and North Korea’s oldest mine), Pakch'on, P'yongsan (began operating in late 1970s), Shinp’o (allegedly incomplete), Sonbong, Sunch'on (likely exhausted by 1999), and Wiwon (announced in 2002).

It is notable that there is no recent information on any of these sites with respect to whether they are in exploitation, how much uranium is mined, how many people are employed, or how much raw material is exported. While those statistics might be in a desk drawer somewhere in Pyongyang or a shelf in the Russian archives, we can say for certain that a sufficient level of mining and processing is happening if North Korea is building nuclear weapons and activating processing plants.

In the way of processing and re-processing facilities, there is again significant uncertainty about the number that are active. These facilities are governed by General Department of Atomic Energy or other subordinated state agencies, and include among them Bakcheon Underground Nuclear Facility (opened in the 1960s), Cheonmasan mining and enrichment facility (suspected), Hagap underground facility (suspected), Taechon, Yeongjeo-ri Enrichment Facility (suspected), Yongbyon Enrichment Facility, Fabrication Plant, Pilot-scale fuel fabrication plant, and Research Center.

Yongbyon Enrichment Facility is the flagship facility of the North Korean nuclear program, comprising a total area of 8.7million square meters and 390 buildings. As late as 2010, it was determined  that North Korea possesses at least one modern enrichment facility with 2000 centrifuges at Yongbyon that was intended to produce low-enriched uranium for civilian purposes, but can be also readily converted to manufacture highly-enriched uranium for military intentions. A plant with a capacity of 2000 centrifuges can produce an estimated 25-40 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium per year, if Iran’s P-1 centrifuges are to be used as a comparative examples and we assume the nuclear technological maturity in both countries is also comparable. With enrichment levels between 2-20%, the range used in civilian nuclear power, greater amounts can be produced.  

It is also notable that the staffing of nuclear facilities is a mix of senior technicians and managers, but political prisoners are also used to meet the operational requirements of these facilities.

The question the international community is asking is, what reactor technology is available to Pyongyang and can it be manufactured and exported? Currently, there are several reactors in North Korea: an experimental 25-30MW reactor at Yongbyon under construction, the Geumho-Jigu reactor site that is currently frozen but planned for two 1000MW Light Water reactors, an abandoned 200MW graphite reactor at Taecheon, an abandoned 50MW light water project at Yongbyon, and finally, a dormant and periodically reactivated 5MW reactor at Yongbyon that is also the focus of frequent international attention.

Recent satellite images indicate that the 50MW reactor at Yongbyon is nearing completion as of May 2013 and may be integrated in the national power grid within the year. It also indicates that North Korea is able to construct the required components to build a nuclear reactors, but more important questions remain about the safety protocols and control systems governing North Korea’s civilian nuclear program. It is still a risk that an event like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, or Fukushima could produce regional impacts comparable to a nuclear exchange.

One unlikely business opportunity that we might see North Korea engage in is the export of small light-water reactors of output up to 1000MW. The primary customers would be other developing countries in Asia and Africa and perhaps even the Middle East, but the prospect for such a development is medium-term, perhaps 5-10 years away. Before gaining any credibility as an international supplier of nuclear technology, North Korea needs to prove that its technology is durable and safe enough in a domestic context. An additional implication is control of the fuel cycle and waste management, because the costliest part of running a nuclear power station in the long term is precisely controlling the fuel cycle and the waste of spent fuel rods. Re-processing capacity will be a crucial variable of any export initiative North Korea would seek to develop, and a decade seems the most likely time scale before it is viable.

Overall, verifiable information is the most difficult to come by in the effort to draw out the precise dimensions of North Korea’s civilian nuclear program and its full military implications. However, it is possible to say that North Korea does not possess the required capacity to run its entire nuclear infrastructure in parallel, although it remains unknown to what extent it is operational and what facilities and mines are being used.

In the end, it is the commercial aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program that present the greatest long-term challenges, not its military ones.

This is the last article in this series. The prior article looked North Korea's trade balances, the one prior addressed North Korea’s recent political overtures for negotiations and before that, fiscal policies, monetary policy, and the Kaesong industrial zone.