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Experts: North Korean Reactor Dreams More Political Than Practical

North Korea recently announced it no longer needs the United States to provide it with a light-water nuclear reactor for energy production. The communist state says it will build one by itself. But North Korea experts have a long list of reasons why that plan is not feasible - and agree there are much better ways to ease the communist state's desperate power shortages.

North Korea says it is ready to go it alone in building a light-water nuclear reactor for energy production - but experts say that will do nothing to address the country's urgent power needs.

"What North Korea really needs is a shipload of weather stripping [insulation material] to fix the holes in the windows in winter in the buildings where people are trying to survive," said Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute, which researches energy issues, in Melbourne. "A reactor is about the last thing you would turn to from an energy perspective."

North Korea's light-water reactor goals reach at least as far back as 1994, when the United States agreed to provide Pyongyang with two in exchange for a freeze of its existing nuclear program, which was capable of producing bombs.

Experts say light-water reactors are much less likely to yield nuclear weapons material than the gas-graphite modified reactors North Korea already had.

Mr. Hayes says even back in 1994, U.S. and North Korean negotiators knew a light-water reactor could not alleviate Pyongyang's energy problems without billions of dollars being spent on new power lines.

"The reactors are too big, and the North Korean grid is too unreliable to safely run nuclear reactors, and if you tried to, they would simply turn themselves off," he said.

Experts say the 1994 Agreed Framework, as it is known, was mainly a political bargain. It aimed to get Pyongyang out of the nuclear weapons business while enticing it to end its isolation from the rest of the world.

However, the agreement broke down in 2002, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to secretly pursuing a second, uranium-based nuclear weapons program. Within months, North Korea expelled inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, pulled out of the global Nonproliferation Treaty and restarted its graphite reactor.

North Korea has never publicly admitted to a uranium enrichment program, and says the United States is still legally obligated to provide it with reactors.

Daniel Pinkston, an expert on non-proliferation programs at California's Monterey Institute, says Pyongyang now faces a credibility dilemma. He points out that North Korea's current graphite reactors are fueled by unenriched uranium, which the country has in abundance. However, light-water reactors, or LWRs, run on enriched uranium.

"Okay, you [North Korea] say you're going to build LWR's - and how are you going to fuel them? It's not plausible that they're going to build these on their own and say, 'Oh, we don't have an enrichment program, we're just going to buy the low enriched uranium fuel on the open market,'" said Mr. Pinkston. "That's not going to happen. And they know this."

Mr. Pinkston says if North Korea is serious about building its own light-water reactor, it must have a uranium enrichment program to fuel it without help from outside.

Experts also agree that even if North Korea did possess the know-how to build a light-water reactor - doing so would cost more than $2 billion.

That price tag is almost certainly too high for North Korea's economy, which is in tatters after decades of mismanagement. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans are believed to have died of illnesses related to malnutrition since the mid-1990s, and the country is still struggling to feed itself.

Mr. Hayes, of the Nautilus Institute, says the light-water reactor issue is mainly about national pride -especially since the original project was negotiated by North Korea's exalted first leader. "It was blessed by Kim Il Sung," he said. "That was really symbolically very important to the North Koreans, and they don't, they can't, really, give that up."

Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and North Korea experts say his son, the current leader, Kim Jong Il, derives nearly all of his legitimacy from his father's legacy.

Peter Beck, northeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group research organization, says the reactor issue may just be a way for Pyongyang to cling to nuclear weapons as a tool of international influence.

"It's just exhibit A, if you will, in North Korea's foot dragging," he said. "If the North really was willing to give up its weapons program, and provide the energy that it desperately needs, then it would drop its demand for the light-water reactors."

As part of its policy of engagement with North Korea, South Korea has already offered to provide its neighbor with large amounts of electricity, if Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons program.

Negotiators from the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea are expected to revisit that offer and the light-water reactor issue with North Korea when they hold another round of multinational talks.

The five nations have met with North Korea five times in an effort to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs. So far, the talks have made little progress.