N.Korea's Twin Nuclear Threats

      November 19, 2010 12:52

      North Korea appears to be weighing two options: conducting a third nuclear test or building a light-water nuclear reactor. Japanese media on Thursday quoted a Japanese government official as saying North Korea appears to be "preparing for a nuclear test" by building a new shaft at its test facility in Punggye-ri. "This is clearly visible through satellite images. It would not be surprising if North Korea conducts a nuclear test at any time," he said.

      Jack Pritchard, the president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington who visited Pyongyang earlier this month, said Tuesday that a North Korean official he met in Yongbyon said the North was building a 100 MW light-water reactor.

      But based on these developments alone it is difficult to say what North Korea is planning. A Cheong Wa Dae official said, "North Korea is up to something, but we don't expect anything to happen right now." Judging from the depth of the shaft that has been dug so far, it will apparently take three to six more months before a nuclear test can be conducted, while the light-water nuclear reactor is slated for completion in 2012.

      In this undated photo released by the [North] Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il inspects a textile factory in Changsong, North Pyongan Province. /KCNA-Reuters

      North Korea has a history of turning to its nuclear option whenever it faces adverse conditions. Its first nuclear test in October 2006 allowed Pyongyang to persuade the U.S. to ease financial sanctions, and it used the second nuclear test in May 2009 to tighten control following signs of public unrest after its leader Kim Jong-il suffered a massive stroke.

      At the moment the regime's top priority is to consolidate the grip on power of Kim's son and heir Jong-un. "It's highly likely that North Korea will use its nuclear program, which symbolizes the 'Songun' or military-first doctrine, to bolster Kim Jong-un's status," said a South Korean intelligence official.

      Seoul is watching out for a third nuclear test. But skeptics say North Korea would not put China in such an awkward situation at a time when Beijing's influence on the North has increased following the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan.

      Yet Cheon Seong-whun of the Korea Institute for National Unification said, "China believes North Korea has nuclear weapons and treats them as a separate issue in dealing with the North. China will not abandon North Korea even if it conducts a third nuclear test."

      After formally announcing Kim Jong-un's position as heir to the leadership on Sept. 29, the North's chief representative to the UN Pak Kil-yon vowed the country will strengthen its "nuclear deterrent."

      South Korean authorities appear far less concerned about the light-water reactor. "It's not easy to build a light-water reactor," said Suh Kune-yull, a professor at the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Seoul National University. "It would be difficult for North Korea to build one from scratch unless it manages to steal the necessary technology from overseas."

      Many experts think the reactor may be a Potemkin village. During the late 1990s, North Korea dug a massive underground tunnel in Kumchang-ri near Yongbyon, and the U.S. raised suspicions that it was building a large underground nuclear facility and met with North Korean officials in New York in February of 1999. U.S. investigators traveled to North Korea in May the same year to inspect the installation but found only empty caves. North Korea nonetheless received hundreds of thousands of tons of food aid.

      That is why experts think North Korea is using the light-water reactor threat to boost its leverage ahead of a possible resumption of six-party nuclear talks.

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