North Korea Reactivates Nuclear Program While World Watches Syria


If it weren't for recent satellite images that indicate a nuclear facility is being restarted at Yongbyon, North Korea, the world might have easily forgotten about the hermit state because of our current preoccupation with Syria. The images show steam rising from the facility, which could be the result of the production of weapons-grade plutonium. Considering the America's commitment to threatening Syria with military action for using chemical weapons, why doesn't the U.S. threaten North Korea since appears to be preparing nuclear weapons?

In sum, the U.S. clearly realizes that the North Koreans are just playing a game with the West. The North Koreans want the attention, and they'll get attention via the reactor — but the U.S. clearly knows threats of a North Korean bomb are massively exaggerated, thus no need for threat of force in necessary.

Before restarting of the Yongbyon facility, North Korea's last international incident occurred in February, when North Korea confirmed it had tested a "miniaturized and lighter nuclear device with greater explosive force than previously." The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty calculated the energy released could be 6-9 kilotons. Despite this escalation of nuclear power, little more happened than a UN Security Council meeting and subsequent international criticism. The New York Times responded on Feb. 11 and noted that North Korea might be trying to "win more badly needed aid as an inducement to draw it back to international negotiations on its weapons programs."

The Yongbyon incident isn't close to this in scale, but has similar political repercussions.

The images surfaced when members of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) were studying satellite imagery that revealed steam being emitted from the reactors, indicating that it could soon be operational. The SAIS report concluded the 5 MWe reactor is capable of producing 6 kilograms of plutonium a year that can be used by Pyongyang to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile.

The facility was shut down in 1994 in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It was restarted in 2002, against the treaty, but then disabled in 2007 after a conference with the China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. This will be the second time since the facility has been built that it has operated in defiance of the international community.

North Korea has consistently used nuclear power as a bargaining chip in the past two decades, but the media alone seems to only pays attention to North Korea when nuclear power or Dennis Rodman are involved.

Strategically and historically, nothing suggests North Korea is going to use nuclear weapons. Even if plutonium is developed within the next few years, the question of capability remains. North Korea famously failed to launch missiles before getting one in the air in December 2012 after four attempts.

By defying international standards, the international community will again focus on North Korea. It will probably bargain for foreign aid and/or try to be a bigger player in the international arena. Since there's nothing in North Korea akin to Assad's regime and the actual use of chemical weapons, the U.S. response won't be to threaten with military strikes.