Uranium and Artillery: North Korean Revelations and Provocations

On November 12, nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker and his Stanford University colleagues John Lewis and Robert Carlin were taken on a tour of the recently updated Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea. They were shown an under-construction experimental light-water reactor (LWR), as well as an entirely new facility housing 2,000 centrifuges, machines intended to enrich uranium for the new reactor. Hecker and his colleagues expressed surprise at the sophistication and cleanliness of the new plant, characteristics that were not previously attributed to Yongbyon. After he returned from his trip, Hecker privately informed the White House of these new revelations regarding the North’s nuclear program, which the administration had suspected was continuing despite UN sanctions. Following Hecker’s revelations, North Korea fired scores of artillery rounds on November 23 near Yeonpyeong Island along the Northern Limit Line (NLL) in the Yellow Sea. Two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed in the clash, and the island’s 1,600 residents were partially evacuated.

Q1: What is the purpose of the new facility at Yongbyon?

A1: The North Koreans claim they are building an experimental LWR with strictly domestic resources and talent set to be operational by 2012. They claim that the new centrifuge facility’s intention is only to promote civilian nuclear power and not to enrich weapons grade uranium. However, there is little confidence that North Korea’s intentions are purely energy oriented given its past history. Various experts on North Korea are predicting another nuclear test in the near future, and this new facility and reactor may be the means to that end.

Q2: Why would the North Koreans boast about their developing nuclear program?

A2: The further development of the North’s nuclear program is a flagrant violation of UN sanctions against the country, which makes its unveiling to these U.S. scientists and experts seem like a bad idea to any reasonable person. However, from the perspective of the North Koreans, there could be several reasonable motivations for this, which include

  • to push for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, from which the North hopes to receive substantial aid;
  • to strengthen the credentials of the heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, to support the delicate succession process that seems to be underway;
  • to solidify the North’s nuclear weapons threat to be used as leverage in future negotiations.

Q3: What were the first signs that North Korea may have been enriching uranium?

A3: In 2002, the Bush administration confronted North Korea about its attempts to import materials necessary to build centrifuges. In 2008, the North Koreans, motivated by disarmament negotiations, relinquished 18,000 pages of Yongbyon’s operating records to the U.S. State Department that were contaminated with uranium particles. Despite these indicators, many claimed the United States was undercutting negotiations with the North on faulty pretenses. The revelations about the North’s uranium-enrichment program have not only validated U.S. policy at the time, but also proved that the extent of the program is far more advanced.

Q4: What impact does the revelation of North Korea’s new uranium-enrichment facility have on the potential resumption of the Six-Party Talks?

A4: Though the North Koreans may have hoped this revelation of their nuclear program would pressure the other five parties back to the negotiating table, the U.S. administration has announced that it would only “negotiate with North Korea if it demonstrates that it is serious about honoring its commitments by taking concrete and irreversible steps towards denuclearization.” Therefore, this new activity at Yongbyon, before the border clash, would have most likely further stalled any official negotiations. However, U.S. officials have since asserted that today’s attack near Yeonpyeong has effectively quelled any attempt to restart the Six-Party Talks.

Q5: What are the facts about today’s border clash near the NLL?

A5: At 2:34 p.m. local time on November 23, North Korean artillery shells began falling in the waters surrounding Yeonpyeong Island. Approximately 50 shells hit a South Korean military base on the island, killing two South Korean marines, two civilians, and injuring 19 others. The barrage lasted about an hour according to a local government official, severely damaging many buildings on the island. The South Korean military fired approximately 80 shells and deployed several fighter jets to the area in retaliation. Before the incident, the South Korean military had been holding routine exercises off the Yeonpyeong coast. The United States, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have strongly condemned the North Korean attack, but China has only spoken out to urge all parties to exercise restraint. North Korea, or course, denies it instigated the clash and places all blame on the South.

Q6: What is North Korea’s motivation for attacking the South this time?

A6: See Answer 2, above. In addition, it seems North Korea did not get the reaction it was hoping for from the regional actors in response to the revelations of its nuclear program. The United States and South Korea reaffirmed their stance not to resume the Six-Party Talks until the North demonstrates it is taking “concrete and irreversible steps towards denuclearization.”

Q7: Can we expect more North Korean attacks in the near future?

A7: We cannot rule out the possibility of more attacks and provocations from the North given its recent belligerent behavior. The time between North Korean provocations seems to be shrinking significantly with each new incident. This could reflect growing instability in the North, the succession process, or a combination of both. The South Korean and U.S. militaries will hold joint exercises this coming week, which were planned prior to Tuesday’s attack. North Korea may use the exercises as pretext for another attack.

Victor Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kathleen Harrington is a research assistant with the CSIS Korea Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Kathleen Harrington