Yongbyon Reactors Shutdown, What will be the Next Step?

[imText1]The report on North Korean Yongbyon 5㎿ reactor shutdown has been proven to be true. Now the interest is focused on the reason behind it.

◊ Spent Fuel Rods Reprocessing Process : Takes About Three Months

Shutdown of the reactor means it is possible to take out the spent fuel rods. The reactors function with the nuclear fuel rods. They are as logs for fire. Just as we are left with ash after the fire, after the nuclear fuel rods emit energy we are left with the spend fuel rods. The spent fuel left in the rods could be reprocessed to extract plutonium, which can be used for building nuclear weapons.

The process of reprocessing is as the following. First, the spend fuel rods must be cooled down in order to decrease radiation, which takes about three months. Then the rods are cut into small pieces of 3cm-4cm. The fuel rods are covered with cladding which needs to be peeled off by diluting in nitrate. When the fuel rods are soaked in the nitrate, the spend fuel is diluted but the cladding does not, so the cladding could be removed from the fuel.

The next step is to separate the spent fuel components diluted in nitrate. In the process of separation, the diluted fuel divides into uranium and plutonium. Uranium is used recycled for nuclear energy while plutonium is used for building nuclear weapons or for the 1 mixed nuclear energy.

The reason why the world is suspicious about the North Korean nuclear facility being the facility to build nuclear weapons is because North Korea has the facility to reprocess the spent fuel rods. There are some who believe, “reprocess is needed to recycle the spent nuclear fuel” but considering that the bountiful uranium deposit in North Korea and the complicated reprocessing process with high risk of nuclear radiation, such an argument lacks logical rationality. Furthermore, taking into account the serious and long lasting economic crisis which North Korea is facing, it has no reason to conduct such a highly extravagant reprocessing activity if it is for nuclear recycling.

◊ NK Nuclear Characteristics : Not “For Negotiation”

Shutdown of the reactor simply means that North Korea is able to take out the spent fuel rods but it does not mean plutonium extraction. Taking out the spent fuel rods does not mean reprocessing. Although it differs to the type of nuclear fuel rods, but generally, the rods must be replaced in ever two to three years. Since North Korea started to operate the Yongbyon 5MW reactor the day after it pulled out of the NPT, January 10, 2003, it is about time it changed the rods.

For this reason some government officials argue that “the shutdown of the Yongbyon reactor does not mean nuclear reprocessing and they are only threats to stimulate the negotiations in the six party talks.” However, there is no reason for North Korea to suddenly shutdown a well-functioning nuclear reactor. Furthermore, it seems least likely for North Korea to leave the reactor for observation or to take out the fuel rods and bury them underground. The reprocessing facility, 120m in width, 80m in length, and height of a six floor building in size is probably not built for nothing.

Selig Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, who plays the main communicator role between the US and the North Korean government, after his recent visit to North Korea, said, “North Korea will start removal of the spent nuclear fuel rods this month and will continue for the following three months.” He also diligently reported all the “threatening comments” from the high North Korean government officials such as North Korea will increase the number of nuclear weapons, it could export the weapons, and that it is possible for North Korea to deploy nuclear weapons attached to missiles.

Such comments are not a simple menace. North Korea built nuclear weapons not to negotiate with other countries, but to possess them. Since North Korea has achieved the goal, there is a high possibility for it to pursue “do whatever I wants” strategy. This is a result from Kim Jong Il’s ignorance and insanity, who believe the nuclear possession is the greatest power symbol of a nation.

◊ How to Respond to the NK Nuclear Problem : No Response is the Best Response

Kim Jong Il will never be able to use his nuclear weapons. Few nuclear weapons do not make North Korea a strong military nation, nor does its possession make the neighbor countries fear Kim Jong Il. Furthermore, it is unlikely for the nuclear states to accept North Korea into their club as a legitimate member, and it is least unlikely that they will silence about it as they have for India and Pakistan.

For this reason, probably the principally correct answer would be “Keeping the consistency in responding with no response and disinterest will affect Kim Jong Il’s the most” as Hwang Jang Yop said. However, in reality, the nuclear problem cannot be watched from the distance since it is directly related to the international nuclear non proliferation regime.

North Korea nuclear development has a clear goal of “nuclear possession” and although it is evident, some in South Korea still believe North Korean nuclear is for negotiations and that Pyongyang will abandon the nuclear weapons if we provide enough of compensation. The nuclear development has been pursued over three decades as Kim Jong Il’s “long-cherished project.” Kim Jong Il did not develop nuclear weapons to negotiation with other countries. With his dream finally realized, there is no reason for him to abandon the nuclear weapons that easily.

Although North Korea will negotiation putting forth the nuclear issue, but Kim Jong Il will never abandon his nuclear weapons. There is a low possibility that the international society offer to compensate for North Korea’s nuclear abandonment while there is a low possibility for Kim Jong Il’s to give up his nuclear weapons consider all his nuclear expenses over the years. Furthermore, considering that the nuclear weapons are the main pillars of his current “military-first politics,” if he does not have the nuclear weapons, there is a high possibility that Kim Jong Il’s internal power will diminish. Kim Jong Il and his nuclear weapons share same destiny.

Mr. Harrison reported on “(North Korean high level officials) expressed there is a possibility of freezing the nuclear weapons at the current level with bilateral negotiations with the US.” North Korea, that has already failed to keep the previous promise, is now saying, “ if you believe us once more, we will not make more nuclear weapons.” The signs are too evident to miss – North Korean nuclear weapons are not for the negotiation purposes, it is for possession.

◊ Future of the North Korean Nuclear Issue : Kim Jong Il and the Nucs will Die Together

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) publicized the satellite pictures which proved that Yongbyon 5MW reactor has been shutdown on the 19th. On January 7th, there was a smoke emitted from the freezer tower, but the picture taken three months later, on April 7, there was no smoke.

The reactor is now shutdown as so. After three months of cooling down process, it can be reprocessed. Theoretically, we can predict North Korea can extract about 12-20kg of plutonium.

North Korea already extracted couple kilograms of plutonium before the 1994 Geneva Agreement. The report North Korea produced at the time stated that only 90g of plutonium was extracted from only one time of reprocessing. However, this was nothing more than an insult to the international society. IAEA collected samples around the reactors and requested for sample analysis in the world’s renounced institutes, from which it concluded that “North Korea has extracted about 8Kg of plutonium through about three times of reprocessing.”

When the second nuclear crisis started in 2003, North Korea reprocessed about 8,000 spent fuel rods which had been frozen since 1994, in which experts predict North Korea may have extracted about 8kg-10kg of plutonium. With the plutonium it will be able to extract after another nuclear reprocessing in July, North Korea will have about 20kg-60kg of plutonium. Considering that the nuclear weapon dropped at Nagasaki, Japan, contained about 8kg of plutonium, we can predict that North Korea can build about two to seven nuclear weapons.

North Korea has been stubbornly pursuing to develop Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) but it is hard to say it has succeeded. Otherwise North Korea would not be so obsessed with plutonium. North Korea will once again shutdown the nuclear reactors, like an annual event. The number of nuclear weapons North Korea possesses can range up to ten but down to one or two.

North Korea always proclaims “We are building more nuclear weapons.” Perhaps we will hear the “three hails” from the North his July. However, we cannot help to question whether that will bring Kim Jong Il a rosy future. Once the UN Security Council drafts a resolution, friendly China will also coldly turn its back on North Korea.

Currently Kim Jong Il is embracing chunks of metal and plutonium power and entering the road to an end.

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