Last week, satellite imagery came out to suggest that North Korea has restarted its only active nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, a five-megawatt power station that is formally intended for research purposes but is also capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium (>20% enriched Pu-239). This reactor is at the foundation of North Korea’s nuclear program and its string of nuclear tests, the last of which happened earlier this year. The restart means that North Korea’s nuclear program could go in two directions: further weapon and missile tests, including in space, or fuel production for a new generation of reactors for domestic use and export.
On the diplomatic front, the Yongbyon restart is a demonstration by North Korea that it is an autonomous nuclear state with full-cycle fuel production, which is the critical variable for any country that wants to have an independent nuclear program. The fact not only makes international leverage on North Korea to end its program very weak, but also gives Pyongyang a relative advantage in expanding its civilian nuclear program and developing export technologies for the developing world. This potential reality is made more plausible by North Korea’s vast uranium deposits. While North Korea withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty a decade ago, it is still possible to push Pyongyang for bilateral or trilateral intergovernmental control mechanisms in nuclear trade, to ensure the security of atomic technology in the recipient state. These would involve monitoring, reporting, and inspection norms to ensure accountability for practices, materials, and technologies.
Alternatively, economic sanctions against states that potentially do nuclear business with North Korea would slow down but not eliminate the risk, as the precedent with Iranian-North Korean trade in military technology already demonstrates. All the while, the development and export of 10-100 megawatt nuclear reactors is not unrealistic to expect if North Korea puts its weapons-manufacturing capacities towards the manufacturing of reactors. The fact these reactors would have small capacities makes them easier to produce than reactors with mid- or high-end power-generation capacity (800-2000MW). Correspondingly, lower maintenance costs mean that they become an attractive option for use in poorer countries on the local or regional levels.
From a military perspective, North Korea’s nuclear program is worrisome, as it will likely lead to the miniaturization of nuclear devices and a rise in intercontinental ballistic missile capacity. The catalyst for these developments was North Korea’ space launch in January, which managed to successfully put a satellite in orbit. At the end of August, satellite imagery also revealed that the same launch site is being expanded to test long-range missile capability, as well as enhance space launch capacity. Subsequent generations of rockets and modernized nuclear weapons mean that North Korea may acquire the ability to put nukes in orbit. The Outer Space Treaty, codified in the 1960s, represents a near-universal international agreement to prevent the weaponization of space, but the DPRK is once again not a signatory of this arms control agreement.
The potential diversification of long-range ballistic missile capability, the development of a launch rocket family, and the export of nuclear and space technology means that is a world ostensibly dedicated to nuclear non-proliferation, North Korea is poised to move exactly in the opposite direction. The longer the six-party talks, a negotiation format for Pyongyang's nuclear program, are frozen, the more time Pyongyang has to develop more sophisticated capabilities in these areas. Soon, it will not be realistic or profitable to demand the rollback of these industries, because they are eventually going to enter the civilian economy in the DPRK. Fighting a war holds unimaginable risk, because it would near-certainly see the deployment of atomic weapons, in what could end up being a regional nuclear holocaust — a reality no one desires.
Tit-for-tat diplomacy might be the best way to bring North Korea into the international consensus on arms control. Security guarantees could govern the DPRK's production capacities, active weapons, and raw materials. It would, however, take a considerable amount of wisdom from Kim Jong-Un to stop playing geopolitical poker on the Korean peninsula and would require more active diplomacy on behalf of the West, China, Japan, and Russia to move forward effectively.