Tag Archive | "environment"

Life in Plastic, Not So Fantastic

By Jenna Gibson

After a sudden Chinese ban on waste and recycling imports threw countries around the world for a loop, the South Korean government is now scrambling to cut down on the amount of plastic waste that the country generates.

Last fall, Beijing shocked the world when it announced that it would no longer accept imports of certain types of waste, including several types of plastic and mixed paper, which countries around the world commonly sell to China for reprocessing. The Chinese government then doubled down this spring, adding 24 more categories to the list of banned waste imports. For years, nearly half of the world’s waste has been sold to China, but the government is now trying to cut down on their environmental footprint by accepting only higher-quality recyclables.

The announcement a few weeks ago sparked panic in South Korea, which is among the countries that sends large amounts of waste to China. The crisis reached a boiling point in early April when local waste collection companies stopped accepting certain types of plastic waste, claiming they could no longer sell those materials for a profit under the new ban. According to the Joongang Ilbo, “It caused chaos in many residential apartment complexes, where loads of plastic waste were stacked up and left uncollected for days.”

To cope with this major disruption in the global waste trade, the South Korean government has been forced to take drastic measures. They plan to completely ban grocery and convenience stores from offering plastic bags by the end of this year, and will incentivize coffee shops and fast food franchises to offer more reusable cups for customers who are dining in. In addition, beverage companies will have to phase out colored plastic bottles by 2020, using only clear plastic that is easier and cheaper to recycle. The government’s ultimate goal is to cut Korea’s plastic waste in half by 2030, and increase the recycling rate from 34 to 70 percent.

Other countries have imposed their own policies to deal with the Chinese ban – in the UK, for example, which used to send almost all of its recycled plastic to China and Hong Kong, has cut prices to sell their waste to countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Germany and the Netherlands, and the government is discussing whether to add a tax on some plastic items. The EU has encouraged its members to ban single-use plastic items such as straws by 2030 – and some local governments, such as the city of Glasgow, went ahead and banned those products in municipal buildings effective immediately. Across the pond, Seattle just passed a similar ban which will take effect this summer.

This waste crisis has already disrupted the lives of the Korean population, and the government’s crackdown on plastic will likely take some getting used to.  But often it takes a crisis like this to spur important and necessary change. So while Korea’s residents will likely need some time to get used to the new plastic laws, in the end the country will be better for it.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from European Parliament’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Hazy Shade of Winter: Air Pollution Sparks Emergency Measures in Korea

By Jenna Gibson

This week, Seoul’s residents were in a haze – literally. Dangerously high levels of particulate matter in the air prompted emergency measures from the Seoul city government, including making public transportation free during peak hours and asking residents to leave their cars in park as much as possible.

These policies are triggered based on the amount of PM2.5 in the air, with levels above 50 µg/m³ being considered unsafe. On Thursday morning, though, PM2.5 in Seoul hit 160 µg/m³, more than three times that level. Even before this week’s spike, the OECD announced that South Korea has the worst air quality among its members.

The government’s emergency measures may have had limited success, however – according to Arirang, use of buses and subways increased by only 2.1 percent on Monday, and traffic only dropped 1.8 percent.

This was the first time emergency smog measures have been activated since the government announced their new policies in July 2017. Besides the free subway and bus rides, other measures include implementing an odd-even license plate program, where drivers alternate days they can be on the road depending on the last digit of their license plate, as well as upping environmental standards for industries like construction and heating/cooling.

The public discourse surrounding the pollution issue, however, doesn’t often zero in on these domestic industries as the source of the problem. Instead, many media reports about the air pollution problem mention particulates blowing over from China, picking up pollutants from the large country’s many factories before making its way to Seoul. However, a KEI analysis by Professor Matthew Shapiro suggests it’s more complicated than that: “While it is true that the pollution originates in China and is carried eastward on the trade winds, China is not the sole contributor to this problem. Rather, Korean investments in China and the subsequent exports of goods from firms in China all play a role,” he writes. “This is an urgent problem, requiring the cooperation of both countries to manage what is ultimately a regional pollution issue.”

The government is scrambling to get a handle on the pollution issue now not only because of public health, but also because of concerns with the PyeongChang Olympic Games starting in less than a month. To keep particulate levels low, an old theromoelectric power plant near the Olympic venues has been shut down until June, and the government is planning to deploy sensors around the PyeongChang area to measure pollution in real time.

Meanwhile, residents are finding ways to cope with the dangerously high pollution rates. After the government announced its first fine dust emergency day on Monday, stock shares of companies that make eye drops and face masks soared. Demand for clothing dryers is also on the rise – although many Koreans still air dry their clothes, concerns about pollution pushed the domestic market for dryers up 474 percent in 2017, according to e-commerce site Auction.

Realistically, offering free rides on the bus or subway is great as a temporary, emergency measure, and can be particularly helpful for those on the lower end of the income spectrum who may be forced to walk in the polluted air if they can’t afford to pay for public transportation. However, not only is it not financially feasible for the Seoul city to offer free rides on a long-term basis, it also does nothing to solve the underlying problem of emissions generated both in Korea and blowing in from abroad.

Although it may take more than a few days of free rides to change people’s habits, clearly the measure didn’t incentivize that many drivers to leave their cars at home for the day. The Korean government, coordinating closely with major cities like Seoul, is going to have to step up their attention to this issue, and find ways to address the root of the problem, whether through domestic or diplomatic efforts.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Image taken by Jenna Gibson.

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Korea’s Ambitious Smart Water Grid Initiative

By Hwan Kang

The word “Smart Grid” became popularized when the energy industry thought applying sensors and having comprehensive control over the whole cycle of generating and consuming electricity was a good idea. Some people thought it would be even better if they could do the same with water, coining the term, “Smart Water Grid (SWG).” South Korea is one of the pioneers in this area as it tries to combat the country’s chronic water shortage stress.

South Korea the “Water-Stressed” Nation

South Korea experiences extreme cases of drought and flood each year, which means that the country has too much water and too little water at the same time. More than half of the total precipitation is concentrated during the summer while it becomes dry rest of the year. The country also experiences wide variance in precipitation by the region as well. Some provinces face water shortages even during the monsoon season because the rain comes down in only concentrated areas. What is worse is that yearly variance in precipitation is also big, ranging from 950 mm per year to 1600 mm per year. Such wide unpredictability forces South Korea to formulate a better water management system.

In terms of consumption, South Korea has been facing an increase in water usage along with economic growth over the years, while the available water source remained pretty much steady. Such a gap in supply and demand of water drove the country to deplete its water sources, with 33 percent of total available water presumed to be depleted according to OECD research. Such a state is represented by high level of water stress, placing Korea 50th out of 167 countries in terms of Water Stress Index, which is just behind severely stressed countries in Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Smart Water Management Initiative by K-water

Instead of staying stressed out about water withdrawal, Korea decided to use internet technology as a solution to build its own SWG. Dubbed as the “Smart Water Management Initiative (SWMI),” the Korean Water Resources Corporation (K-water) revealed its ambitious plan to use the ICT (Information & Communications Technologies) to control the whole cycle of water consumption. Similar to smart electricity grid, the initiative aims to put sensors on every part of the water distribution process to keep track of it on a real-time basis and manage facilities to efficiently recycle the water and re-distribute it.

The purposes of building SWG are to maximize the limited water resources and deal with uncertainties that arise with subsequent draught and flood. K-water expects that the successful operation of the SWG will eventually reduce the need to construct additional dams, leading to much cheaper solutions. The system also plans to communicate with the consumers through an online application by showing them real time information on the quality of water they use and provide assistance if they need it.

The SWG has gone through a trial period in selected regions such as Paju, where it has brought up the percentage of residents who drink tap water to 19.3 percent from 1 percent, improving confidence in the safety of the water, with an 80.7 percent satisfaction rate. In case of Seosan, a region which suffered from water leakage, the system was able to bring up the flow rate up to 90 percent from 60 percent, saving a significant amount of water and money. SWG is widely expanding its area with applications pending for Naju, the Korean Airforce, and Sejong city.

Growing Global Smart Water Management Market and Pioneering Korea

Water management is now considered as a prospective market with water shortages looming as a major problem in the future. According to the OECD, the water management for urban areas will become increasingly important because 86 percent of the OECD population will live in cities, while demand for water will increase by 55 percent by 2050. What is worse is that urban areas are more susceptible to pollution as well as environmental disasters, which calls for preventative water management plans. According to Ecolab, water management is also becoming an important part of corporate strategies by the companies, too. As the cost of acquiring necessary water rises, they are looking for ways to stably supply water for their industries. Such combined demand is becoming more realistic as industries are investing more in the smart water management market, pushing the market to grow on the average of 17.2 percent every year.

Amid all these changes, it is not surprising that Korea is not the only one trying to develop SWG. In fact, United States was the first country to coin the term with the launch of the Smart Water Grid Initiative back in 2009. Germany, France, Israel and Singapore are also developing their own methods of managing water with ICT either from their need to control water related disasters or recycle it for re-use. IBM is leading the management market as a private company by providing software called IBM Intelligent Water for rivers such as the Hudson River and the Amazon River and in countries such as Amsterdam and Ireland.

Korea is striving to acquire a position in the global market and is in fact showing some progress. Along with its future plans to expand its SWG program domestically, it has signed several memorandums of understanding (MOU) with the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Jordan and Vietnam, where they all suffer from severe water shortages. In the case of the ADB, K-water has promised to send its SWG experts to four South Asian countries and provide the necessary education and assistance to fix the developing nations’ inefficient water supply systems. For Jordan, on the other hand, the SWG developed by K-water will consist of desalination plants that will filter the sea water from the Dead Sea. Lastly, the MOU with Vietnam is about managing the drinking water in the country which is a fast growing market in the region. In addition to various forms of SWG cooperation, Korea is planning to hold the 2017 Smart Water Grid International Conference, which has been held annually in Incheon.


Although the Korean Smart water management initiative looks promising, it is not without its problems. The OECD report on enhancing water use efficiency in Korea lists the problems comprehensively. A major flaw in these endeavors is the funds for these projects. Currently, K-water depends heavily on government funding rather than its own revenue for their operation, which was half of its total spending of 17.9 trillion Korean won (15.9 billion USD) in 2013. The report also points out that the K-water spends less efforts on improving the water distribution efficiency on the demand side by adjusting the fee for the consumers.

K-water also needs to work harder to raise the awareness of its initiative, both with the public and elites. K-water may have announced MOUs with other countries in the media, but it is not enough to demonstrate to the public the potential and how successful SWG development is. Fora project requiring significant investments, there is little information on the progress of the initiative other than from K-water sites and foreign reports written in English. In terms of elites or academics who want to develop the SWG further in Korea, there are academic societies dedicated to researching the SWG in Korea specifically. However, they do not seem to be updating publications or events in a timely manner to support interest. For K-water to really go for the global market it needs to work on how to build domestic support, so it will have a firm footing from which to pursue the initiative with stable funding and acknowledgement.

Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from Changjin Lee’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Drought in North Korea — What Should Be the Response?

By Robert R. King

Just a few days ago, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a report that North Korea is facing its worst drought in 16 years.  The report, prepared by the FAO in cooperation with the European Union’s Joint Research Center, concludes that the period April through June of this year was particularly dry, which has delayed planting and stunted plant growth in key crop-growing areas.  Food security in the DPRK has been precarious since the famine of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now the UN agency is warning that “cereal output may decrease significantly.”

The other shoe that has yet to drop this year are floods.  North Korea frequently faces late summer monsoon rains and occasional typhoon rains in September that complicate farm production.  Because North Korean government policies limit private farming on good farm land in the flatter bottomlands, farmers end up over-cultivating hillsides.  Then when the late-summer rains come, they can accelerate the runoff, causing devastating damage to the hillsides through erosion.

The late August 2016 floods along the Tumen River on the northern DPRK border with China and Russia were caused by Typhoon Lionrock.  In North Korea, the floods killed over 500 people, left over 100,000 homeless, and did major damage to farmland in the area.  Flooding such as this is an all too common occurrence, and exacerbates existing food scarcity.

Unfortunately, food shortages in the North are not unusual.  Even in an average year, the country has to stretch to meet the food needs of its 25 million people.  The government provides only limited resources for agricultural inputs and equipment, farming methods are not the most modern or effective, and central planning generates further inefficiencies.  Some improvements have been made in recent years with better farming practices that reward individual efforts to encourage greater efficiency, but shortages are still serious.

In the 1980s, annual grain production (principally rice and corn) averaged around 8 million tons.  During the famine (1996-2003), annual production averaged 3 million tons, with some years considerably lower.  For the last five years, it has averaged just below 5 million tons.  Furthermore, gaps between regions and a poor transportation system make it difficult to adjust for regional differences.

The suffering of the North Korean people is certainly not their own fault.  They have little, if any, ability to influence the decisions of the tyrants that control their fate.  The food shortages are the responsibility of the regime.

In fact, the regime provides ample food and luxuries for the elite in Pyongyang, and the military leadership and elite military units will have sufficient food.  Resources that could provide much-needed inputs for agricultural production will be spent for nuclear and missile development and maintaining the military, and of course the supply of luxuries will continue to flow to the privileged.

Certainly UN agencies will appeal to member states to help North Korea. However, humanitarian assistance from the UN, particularly the World Food Program, will likely be difficult to secure.  There are great demands on UN humanitarian resources in other parts of the world right now, and in recent years special appeals to provide aid to the North Koreans have secured only limited help.  North Korea has lavished resources on missile and nuclear capabilities, despite the urgent humanitarian needs of its own people and the condemnation of its military actions by the UN Security Council.  Thus, aid to North Korea will be a particularly difficult case to make to elected political leaders.

In addition, the U.S. government is unlikely to be responsive.  A sharply divided Congress, preoccupied with healthcare, taxation, and other divisive domestic issues, will find it very difficult to support humanitarian aid to a country which has announced that its nuclear and missile programs are aimed at Washington.  Furthermore, the Trump Administration has indicated its intent to significantly cut back on all U.S. foreign assistance.

The new government of the Republic of Korea is likely to give the most serious consideration to the humanitarian needs of the North.  These suffering Koreans are their cousins, and many Koreans in the South have roots in the North.  In fact, Seoul has put forward an initial proposal for engagement with Pyongyang.  Based on previous experience, the North will likely expect to be paid to engage, and in the past humanitarian aid has been a place to start.

Another avenue for assistance in coping with the effects of drought is private humanitarian groups.  A good number of them are American Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which have a good record and experience in aiding the North.  Unfortunately, these NGOs face serious difficulties raising funds.  These groups are well-organized and managed, do extremely good work, and have dedicated and compassionate leaders.  The DPRK, however, has become such an international pariah because of its nuclear and missile programs, its periodic provocations, and crude verbal outbursts that large and small donors alike are reluctant to be involved.

In considering a possible response by governments, international organizations, and private non-profit organizations to the growing signs of an impending food shortage in the DPRK, two considerations are important.

First, they must assess the need for help.  Our satellite imagery is remarkable, and we can make reasonable estimates about the extent of the need from afar.  But on-the-ground assessment is essential to determine the reality.  What crops and which regions are most affected?  What steps is Pyongyang taking to deal with this problem?  What are the transportation issues?  Does the North have the capacity to move aid from ports to affected areas?

Second, agreements must be reached to allow on-the-ground monitoring by designated representatives of the country or organization providing the aid.  In the past, South Korean and international organizations delivered food aid to the border or to the ports, and Pyongyang determined where the aid was sent.  Some was apparently sold on the black market and the payments may have helped fund the military. Other funds subsidized the lifestyles of the rich and infamous.  If aid is provided, foreign donors and the international community need to be assured that humanitarian assistance is going to those most in need.

The longsuffering North Korean people have limited alternatives for humanitarian help.  Unfortunately, the bad decisions and self-destructive policies of its own leadership, over which they have little or no control, make it very difficult to find help for them.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America.   He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from (stephan)’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Conceptualizing South Korea’s Response to a Nuclear Power Accident in North Korea

This is the sixth in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Other pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of North KoreaRussiaJapan, China, and the United States.

By Duyeon Kim

South Korea’s response to a nuclear reactor crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon complex depends heavily on many assessments and factors. Was it its 5 megawatt-electric (MWe) graphite reactor or experimental light-water reactor (ELWR) that experienced a meltdown? Was the ELWR operational at the time? Was it caused by an accident or an attack? How big is the damage and how much radiation has leaked? While answers to these questions are important when devising appropriate response measures and North’s nuclear safety standards are of grave concern, it is believed that the radiological consequences of a reactor accident or incident would be minimal and isolated.

Before assessments can be made based on the above scenarios, a quick review of standard reactor safety is necessary to help understand whether North Korea’s nuclear facilities are in fact safely constructed.

Nuclear Safety

Modern safety standards for nuclear power plants are built in throughout the entire lifespan of the facilities from (land) siting, design, construction, operations, and decommissioning. Nuclear power plants are designed with a concept called defense-in-depth, which are multiple layers of protection to reduce risks to both the workers and the public. The priority to the defense-in-depth strategy is to prevent accidents, and if they cannot be prevented, to then mitigate their consequences. The layering of protection—including, for example, placing reactors inside containment structures to keep radiation from reaching the environment—allows modern nuclear power plants less prone to accidents than many industrial facilities, although sometimes human error may cause accidents.

Over time, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster helped identify weaknesses in defense-in-depth and the need for a safety culture. However, even the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi meltdown showed that nuclear power plants that are designed with defense-in-depth principles can still fail if they are subject to system failures and multiple traumas from forces greater than what they were built to withstand. Fukushima also illustrated that the same conditions can be created by humans with malicious intent.

In North Korea’s case, it is unclear whether its reactors are built according to international safety standards, and the quality of its safety culture, if it exists, continues to be a critical question. The North’s isolation, potential safety vulnerabilities with an unverified safety culture, and questions surrounding Pyongyang’s ability to respond in a timely manner to contain a nuclear accident from becoming a catastrophic disaster all raise serious concerns.

North Korea’s gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactors originated from the research reactor, IRT-2000, built by the Soviets in the 1960s. Then, under the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, the international consortium called the Korea Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) began building two, commercial-scale (1000 MW) light-water reactors (LWR) at the Kumho site to help meet the North’s energy needs in return for dismantling its plutonium-production facilities. The KEDO project, however, was terminated under the George W. Bush administration.

In 2010, Pyongyang showed Siegfried Hecker and Robert Carlin its 25-30 MWe experimental light-water reactor (ELWR) under construction using with what they were told “strictly indigenous resources and talent.” They also saw a reactor containment vessel being built, which according to the North’s chief engineer, was expected to be 22 meters in diameter, 0.9 meters thick, and 40 meters high, later confirmed by commercial satellite imagery, but interlocutors have questioned the quality of the vessel, particularly the quality of the concrete used for the containment structure. Another unknown is whether the North used the reactor components and designs left onsite after the KEDO project’s termination to fabricate or use for its ELWR.

A design-basis accident is a “postulated accident that a nuclear facility must be designed and built to withstand without loss to the systems, structures and components necessary to ensure public health and safety.” In other words, they are the most severe circumstances a nuclear power plant is likely to face and the minimum considerations that go into the construction of the plants.

However, Fukushima illustrated that the long electricity cut-off actually went beyond the design-basis accident of most nuclear plants in most countries and that most backup power generators are not enough to restore power to cool the reactor core and spent fuel ponds. In other words, critical safety components are an adequate onsite power source to provide a functioning cooling system to prevent a reactor core meltdown, the reactor operators’ ability to immediately shut down the reactor if the core overheated or address any accidents in a timely manner, and an emergency backup cooling system in case of a station blackout, which includes a generator to provide electricity to cool the reactor core or the means to transport water from a nearby river.

As for North Korea’s ELWR, Hecker and Carlin saw a sign that read “Safety first – not one accident can occur!” Due to the prominence of anything nuclear in North Korea’s national objectives, it is imaginable that their scientists and engineers would put their lives on the line to construct safe nuclear power plants and not allow a reactor core meltdown, but it is unclear whether Pyongyang has used adequate siting, reactor safety designs, quality construction, and beyond design-basis accident considerations for its ELWR, which they claim will eventually be scaled up once they mastered the nuclear technology. In early 2016, satellite imagery showed the ELWR’s cooling system, via river water supply channels from the adjacent Kuryong River, has become functional. Satellite imagery also indicates that the construction of the ELWR is complete, but as of April2016, there is no evidence yet of operations. Nuclear safety concerns will continue after the ELWR becomes operational for the reasons mentioned above, but also because it is widely believed that North Korean personnel lack experience in operating this type of reactor. The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster occurred about two months after the reactor became operational.

South Korean Interests and Response

As David von Hippel and Peter Hayes astutely point out in 2014, a reactor meltdown could occur at the North’s experimental light-water reactor either by accident or attack, but the radiological release would be modest in scale and scope. Some scenarios include: an ELWR accident, an attack by the U.S. (or jointly with South Korea), or a terrorist attack by an external actor or an insider threat. The following assessment will focus on a potential crisis at the North’s ELWR, which is of more concern to international experts.

South Korean interests and concerns would depend on which of the above scenarios is the cause and status of a reactor meltdown as well as its scale and scope. The following assessment is based on the assumptions illustrated above.

In the event of an accident (by nature, system failure, or human error) at North Korea’s ELWR, conventional expert wisdom is that the radiological fallout would be local, only contaminating neighboring agricultural areas within North Korea and perhaps even spread to the Kuryong River if the accident is not successfully managed. The isolated impact may calm South Korean fears in the short-term, but the South would still worry about the environmental damages in the North when thinking about life after the reunification of Korean Peninsula.

Currently, scientists believe the radiological effects of an accident at or even attack on the Yongbyon ELWR would not be consequential to South Korea because the radiological exposure would be so small and source materials would dilute to near undetectable amounts by air, rain, and water systems. The caveat and concern is possible retaliation by Pyongyang against South Korean nuclear facilities if its reactors were attacked by the U.S. or by the U.S. and South Korea. The radiological exposure and damage—economic, health, environmental—from an attack on South Korean nuclear facilities would be far more catastrophic and devastating.

One major concern, however, would be Pyongyang’s lack of transparency in the event of a reactor accident, which could pose greater risks if the regime is unable to contain it. The international community would also need to rely on its own means to detect the radionuclides released from the accident with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization’s International Monitoring System and with South Korea’s extensive and real-time radiation monitoring network. The most problematic consequence with Pyongyang withholding information from the international community would likely be the induction of panic in South Korea because of the uncertainty about the accident’s impact and potentially harmful effects of radiation exposure.

A nuclear accident of or attack on the North’s ELWR would technically constitute a public health and safety issue, not a national security issue, for South Korea. Its Ministry of Public Safety and Security and particularly the Disaster Relief Headquarters would be first to address the situation and cooperate with the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS) to make a probabilistic (radiation) risk assessment to help devise necessary measures because of the possibility of the southwestern down-winds that could carry radiation to the South. South Korean nuclear experts worry about Seoul, which is about 200 km away from Yongbyon. About 70 percent of the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe traveled 200 km way to Belarus, although one key flaw with the Chernobyl reactor was the absence of a containment structure.

Still, public fear is expected upon news of an incident at Yongbyon. Thus, depending on its assessment based on the scale and scope of the North’s nuclear accident or attack, Seoul may advise the public to, for example, temporarily avoid the outdoors or use umbrellas during rainfall to calm fears even in the absence of a downwind with radiation. If public fear peaks to panic and terrified levels, Seoul might even consider convening a National Security Council meeting to reassure public concerns even though the accident would be a public health and safety issue.

Duyeon Kim is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a non-partisan think tank in Seoul founded and headed by former ROK National Security Advisor Chun Yung-woo aimed at devising practical policy solutions. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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China’s Potential Actions in a North Korean Nuclear Contingency

This is the fourth in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Other pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of North KoreaRussia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

By Yun Sun

Although information on the exact technical specifications of the North Korea nuclear programs remains scarce, insufficient and in-definitive, the prevailing perception is that many, if not most of these programs are located close to the Chinese border.  This is perhaps inevitable given the limited size and terrain of North Korean territory. The famous Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, for example, is located 110 km from the Chinese border, while the Punggyeri Nuclear Test Site is around 90 km away. The safety of these nuclear facilities, especially the potential nuclear radioactive contamination has become an increasing concern for the Chinese government given their geographical proximity to China. In 2013, North Korea’s nuclear test had propelled the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection to set up dozens of radiation detectors and announced the results at an unprecedented press conference. Although the radiation levels in major cities were reported to be within the normal range, complains from the Chinese public opinions were still rampant.

China’s planning and preparation for a North Korean contingency in recent years have been mostly focused on an internal instability scenario, most likely an implosion caused by a military coup or an unexpected death of the North Korean leader. In such a scenario, the common expectation is that China is prepared to intervene to preserve a functional North Korean government as well as the survival of North Korea as a country if South Korean and/or American intervention is detected. Similarly, if the contingency is a conflict between the two Koreas and U.S. steps in as Seoul’s ally, China will also most inevitably intervene militarily. Depending on the scenario, the impact and the grand bargain, China could aim at supporting the North Korean regime against foreign invasion, establishing buffer zone along the border to prevent refugee inflows, or imposing a ceasefire.

Despite the Chinese preparation for a political/military contingency in North Korea, however, a North Korea contingency due to damage to its research reactor’s core causing the core to burn or a nuclear meltdown at its light water reactor is much less discussed in the Chinese policy community. This could be because that the probability of a nuclear contingency is significantly smaller than the probability of political instability due to implosion/explosion, therefore has not been prioritized. It could also reflect China’s lack of information, experience and anticipation for a nuclear meltdown scenario. After all, China has never been directly exposed to a nuclear crisis domestically or on its border.

In a Yongbyon reactor crisis, China’s first priority would be to prevent or minimize nuclear radioactive contamination of the Chinese territory. Yongbyon is located 110 km from the Chinese border. In both cases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the nuclear disaster exclusion zones set up have been of 30-km radius approximately. This probably means that China will not be the center of nuclear contamination in the event of a nuclear crisis in Yongbyon, but some level of radiation contamination seems inevitable.

China will see the handling of a nuclear crisis within North Korean territory primarily as the responsibility of the North Korean sovereign government. After all, a crisis with North Korea’s nuclear reactor does not automatically constitute the sufficient justification for international intervention. However, given the widely shared assumption that North Korean capacity, equipment, resources and ability to handle a nuclear crisis are extremely limited, China as North Korea’s sole ally and main supporter will likely be the first country to be asked to provide assistance. And given the nature of a nuclear disaster, the Chinese agencies to provide such assistance are more likely to be military rather than civilian.

Some Chinese military analysts have demonstrated certain levels of confidence about the Chinese ability to deal with North Korean nuclear reactors, citing the shared Soviet origin of the nuclear technologies of both China and North Korea. However, the counter-argument against the Chinese presumed confidence is that older technologies and facilities are more difficult and more dangerous due to their outdated and less sophisticated design. Having said that, the Chinese policy community seems to be convinced that China will have to be responsible, at least partially, and provide technical assistance, dispatch experts, engineers and military personnel for evacuation and the establishment of the exclusion zone.

China will also prioritize the internal stability of North Korea in the event of a nuclear contingency. Depending on the level of disruption and turmoil the nuclear crisis creates, the Chinese military personnel could include a stabilization force to prevent political upheavals. This presumably will be done in coordination with the North Korean government.

China is highly likely to work with Russia to jointly intervene in a crisis involving a North Korean nuclear reactor. Russia is also subject to radioactive contamination given its geographical proximity and therefore has a vested interest. More importantly, Russia is better positioned and equipped to deal with nuclear disasters given its technical knowledge of North Korean nuclear programs and its past experiences with Chernobyl. Russia has a relatively friendly and positive relationship with North Korea. A joint operation with Russia will not only dilute the responsibility China has to carry, but also diffuse a perception of Chinese unilateral intervention by North Korea and by the international community.

Given that a nuclear crisis in North Korea will inevitably create a humanitarian disaster, including radioactive contamination crisis, food crisis and refugee crisis, international humanitarian aid will be solicited and most likely provided. However, HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) efforts by foreign militaries other than China and Russia most likely will be rejected by North Korea due to its heightened sense of insecurity and vulnerability in a nuclear contingency. North Korea and China will share the goal of preventing South Korea and the U.S. from exploiting the situation to facilitate invasion or unification.

South Korea and the U.S. could possibly refer the nuclear crisis to the UN Security Council. However, without sufficient justification that the nuclear crisis and radiation leakage creates a dire threat for regional and international peace and security, and/or a dire humanitarian disaster, any resolution that China will support will be unlikely to authorize a military intervention. China most likely will support the United Nations to organize and manage the international humanitarian efforts, including aids and donations from South Korea and the United States. China could even request that IAEA dispatch expert teams and provide technical assistance to deal with the nuclear situation. However, military personnel are unlikely to be the invitation list.

Despite North Korea’s damage of the Chinese national security through its nuclear program, a crisis at North Korea’s nuclear plant does not change the geopolitics involved in the Korean peninsula for China. A nuclear disaster in North Korea will increase the cost of China’s current policy, and China probably will use the opportunity to shape Pyongyang’s thinking and curtail its future nuclear provocation. However, China’s fundamental calculation regarding the U.S.-ROK military alliance and U.S. role in the region will not evaporate from a nuclear disaster in North Korea. Under the current circumstances, China will continue to want to preserve the North Korean state until it is shown a desirable endgame in a unification scenario. China’s potential reactions to a nuclear crisis, including military intervention, technical assistance, humanitarian aid and cooperation with Russia all originate from that calculus.

Yun Sun is a Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Beyond Neon’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Challenges for Japan of a Nuclear Crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon Facility

This is the third in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Other pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of North Korea, Russia, China, South Korea, and the United States.

By James L. Schoff

Containment is Paramount

Japan is highly vulnerable to airborne radioactive fallout from a nuclear incident on the Korean Peninsula, given prevailing westerly winds.  On an increasingly regular basis, Japan endures unhealthy waves of air pollution emanating from China via Korea, in the form of so-called yellow dust, yellow sand, or other fine particulate matter (PM 2.5).  The situation is worst in winter fueled by increased coal use and stronger seasonal winds.  Once the pollutants are airborne, there is little the Japanese government can do but alert the public to take basic precautions, such as wearing face mask or limiting outdoor exposure.  Radioactive material, however, would create an unmanageable health crisis.

A 2017 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated that a nuclear accident in Busan South Korea—in this case a loss of cooling water leading to a fuel storage explosion—would force the Japanese government to evacuate more than 28 million people in Western Japan to avoid the severe health risks from breathing air contaminated by cesium-137 or other radioactive micro-particles.  A similar accident at Yongbyon in North Korea would probably be smaller in scale (given the smaller size facility) but could still affect millions, as the more densely populated Kanto region in Japan (including Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama, and Chiba) is likely to be in the path of fallout from the DPRK.

For comparison, the costly and logistically challenging evacuation in Japan caused by the Tokushima nuclear crisis in 2010 involved about 300,000 local residents.  All of the U.S. bombing in Japan late in World War II forced evacuations of about nine million Japanese, requiring complete national mobilization.  To relocate 28 million is frankly unfathomable, not to mention the long-term economic toll this would take on the nation and the entire region.  Japan’s paramount interest, therefore, is doing whatever it can to help contain the local nuclear accident and prevent a worst-case scenario.

Information and Assistance are Priorities

Upon news of the accident, Japan’s National Security Council would convene an emergency meeting and stand up an interagency task force, led by the Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary for Crisis Management.  Initial priorities include assessing the situation, preparing for possible invocation of the Civil Protection Law to authorize emergency powers for possible evacuations (in Japan and/or Japanese residents in South Korea), and mobilizing certain equipment that could aid in a North Korea or multilateral response to the crisis.  Mitigation would be much easier if North Korea allows for direct international assistance, perhaps under a UN umbrella with a team involving people experienced with disaster relief in North Korea and veterans of IAEA monitoring activities at Yongbyon in the early 2000s.

For example, Japan can make available equipment for aerial analysis and assessment of ground deposition of radioactive materials (utilizing specially configured helicopters and an unmanned reconnaissance plane received from the Americans in 2010).  Japan could also provide water pump trucks, radiation suits, robotic cameras for surveillance, decontamination facilities, and other material necessary for addressing potential nuclear risks.

The Japanese government would kick into high gear diplomatically, working bilaterally with the United States, the Republic of Korea, China, and Russia, looking to share information (including satellite imagery when feasible) and developing a coordinated response.  Coordinating with Washington would be relatively easy, given their close alliance and the experience working together in 2010 involving the military, diplomats, and nuclear authorities of both countries.  Tokyo would likely be uniquely forthcoming with Seoul sharing information, testing the limits of their military intelligence sharing agreement of 2016.  All three of these countries were critical players in the international response to a deadly Ebola virus outbreak in Africa in 2014-15, acting directly and through the UN system to provide hundreds of millions of dollars, medicine, in-kind contributions, and medical and logistics professionals to help contain the threat.  A similar approach would be sought in this case.

As for Japan’s diplomatic objective, its preference would be for at least a small international investigative team on the ground at Yongbyon as quickly as possible, ideally with some Japanese representation, but Tokyo would probably not insist on this point if North Korea balked.  A key question is what to do if North Korea refuses international assistance of any kind, while indications become clearer that a potentially catastrophic nuclear accident is occurring.

It is hard to see how the allies could impose their will upon North Korea, so all efforts would be made to convince Pyongyang to accept some outside help voluntarily.  This could include turning to different channels of communication, such as Chosen Soren (or the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), which is a political group of ethnic Koreans in Japan who remain loyal to North Korea.  Perhaps they could be persuasive for the sake of protecting their own members.  Japan would go to great lengths to demonstrate benevolent intent toward North Korea in this particular instance, being more flexible with regard to spending money and providing assistance than is normally the case, even if it applies only to this situation.

As this crisis is unfolding, economic markets would be weakening, requiring government efforts to backstop Japanese firms and ameliorate volatility.  Soon after Japan’s nuclear crisis became evident in 2010, the nation’s stock indices suffered their worst two-day selloff—down about 17 percent—since 1987.  South Korean, Chinese, and U.S. markets would be hurting as well.  Beyond jittery markets, if radioactive fallout did begin to affect Japan and trigger mandatory evacuations in certain areas, it could affect supply chain management that can send ripples throughout the region.  This also happened in 2010, affecting various industries including autos, semiconductors, and electronics.  Thus, another priority for Tokyo would be to mobilize manufacturers to mitigate the potential impact of a worst-case scenario even as it pledges reassuring support for firms, banks, and insurance companies to discourage panic selling.  The economic dimension of this challenge involves both logistics and psychology.

The Japanese government is experienced at trying to manage natural disasters (home and abroad), financial crises, and also nuclear accidents, even if its performance is mixed given the enormous challenges involved.  The emotional scar of the Tokushima nuclear crisis in Japan is still so fresh that a similar crisis in North Korea would consume the public and the authorities.  They would drop everything to help contain the fallout and work with whomever necessary in the region and around the world to address the threat.  Japan has technical expertise and financial resources to offer, and it will leverage all of its multilateral and bilateral relationships to deliver what it can.

Underlying distrust of North Korean leadership, the outstanding issue of missing Japanese abducted by North Korea in the past, and the increasing nuclear and missile threats mean that Japanese flexibility and generosity would likely end once the nuclear safety issue is under control, but the experience might open a door to bilateral or multilateral cooperation with North Korea even after the incident is contained, if nuclear safety can be improved without extortion efforts by Pyongyang.

James L. Schoff is a Senior Fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Alessandro Grussu’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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How Might Russia Respond to an Accident at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Facility?

This is the second in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Other pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of North Korea, Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States.

By Khrustalev Vladimir

In the case of hypothetical accident with depressurization and ejection of radiation from a North Korean nuclear reactor: what actions might Russia take?

To start: the author must notify that the text written below is the author’s opinion and does not contain the information from inside documents of Russian authorities. Nevertheless, the possible Russian actions in this situation are rather predictable.

Firstly, Russia’s actions will be set by the scale of accident. And the scale of accident is determined by some objective limitations that are related to particular qualities of the working North Korean reactor.

It has rather low thermal power (not more than 30 megawatts) – so the supposed ejection of radioactive materials is hardly significant enough to be a threat for the life and health of Russia’s adjacent territories population.

For comparison – the full thermal power of Chernobyl’s RBMK-1000 was 3200 megawatts. So the full thermal power of North Korean reactor is less than 1 percent! It is the thermal power that determines the speed and volume of accumulated radioactive materials and also the potential energy intensity of different accidents with a thermal explosion. Even if we take the maximum valuation of territory recommended for evacuation (in big part just as precautionary measure) in areas adjacent to Chernobyl disaster – we’ll see only 2600 square kilometers. Any significant disaster’s effects (not all of them were dangerous) were recorded on the territory about 200 thousands square kilometers in size. In case of a hypothetical accident with the North Korean reactor we can unhesitatingly reduce these figures by 1-2 orders!

The supposed zone of occurrence of any conditions dangerous (at least potentially) for life and health is the territory of one or several neighboring counties. It is the maximum. Most of the accident scenarios set local effects.

Nevertheless Russia can’t ignore the hypothetically dangerous emergency situation. In many ways because the experience shows that any nuclear accident is perceived by citizens disproportionally dramatically to the actual hazard level. So, primarily the enhanced control of the radiation situation will be taken and the civil defense structures work will be implemented. Also, an awareness campaign for adjacent Russian regions’ (primarily Primorsky region) citizens about the current situation will be held.

Also, the Russian Federation (in case of a disaster that does not threaten Russia, but is still serious) will evacuate Russian residents who are in the potentially dangerous regions of North Korea. At the same time, Pyongyang will be offered neighborly assistance in eliminating the disaster’s effects. Russian specialists have unique experience in this field, have appropriate technologies, machines, equipment, and etc. In case of a nuclear accident our country is ready to offer help to any neighboring country and North Korea is not an exception.

From the point of view of the foreign policy approach the Russian Federation’s position basically implies any country’s inside freedom of choice to accept or reject help in this kind of situation. Therefore, efforts will be made to counteract attempts to use this accident for any kind of interventional actions against North Korea. Whenever possible there will be attempts to apply for external assistance in the specified formats of the UN and IAEA.

The most likely external partners in undertaking the operation are China, Belarus and Kazakhstan. With the last two countries mentioned there exist substantial communication in the nuclear field including the matters related to elimination of the consequences of any kind of nuclear activity.

From the technical point of view: the Russian Far East territory has sufficient stocks of materiel including some for in the case of nuclear accidents. The transport aviation operations of the Ministry of Emergency Situations or (in case of a lack of necessary equipment) the Ministry of Defense can be easily used for delivery of the needed volumes of materiel to North Korea. In the most prompt scenario the cargo will be delivered to the needed location in less than 24 hours. Most likely it won’t be necessary to deliver special heavy machinery (capable of functioning in the nuclear accident zone and providing protection to the personnel from radiation).  It will be easier to consult with the local specialists about the best ways of equipping common construction and the military machinery of North Korea with additional shielding. Russia has corresponding experience from the Chernobyl disaster. And North Korea would have appropriate industrial facilities.

Regarding the humanitarian aspect: the Russian Federation will also be ready to provide help for the evacuated civilian population with medicine and food supplies and other needs.

The other aspect is helping people affected by radiation. Probably (in case of other party’s agreement and medical possibility) the patients will be even evacuated to Russia for therapy. Our country has appropriate medical and scientific institutions that are highly practically experienced in healing such patients. Also, Russia is ready (if needed) to support corresponding specialists deployment to North Korea for work with injured people!

As for the situation with North Korean nuclear facilities: Russia does not accept any forceful actions against North Korean nuclear facilities in principle.

Firstly, an attack against these facilities could create consequences much more significant than just an accident. The point is that the impact can cause the depressurization of nuclear waste storage and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities. Their destruction at the same time with the reactor would create a completely different hazard level – including the territory of Primorsky region that is adjacent to North Korea.

Secondly, such an attack would be considered a dangerous precedent for the destruction of nuclear facilities in another country’s territory. If such actions are taken by the U.S., Moscow will have to raise the limits of what is permissible in its foreign policy and to change a number of approaches to American activities near Russian borders. Also Moscow will have to accelerate joint activities in the area of collective security with China.

Therefore the Russian position implies the necessity of dialog and mutual concessions between Pyongyang and Washington. It also implies the destructiveness of both the approach in which only Pyongyang must make concessions and the threats of force against the North Korean nuclear complex.

Khrustalev Vladimir is a Russian defense analyst and editor-in-chief and author of “Northeast Asian Military Studies” (NEAMS.RU). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from mariusz kluzniak’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What are the Potential Impacts of a Crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Reactors?

This is the first in a series of six blogs looking at a nuclear crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility. Subsequent pieces will look at the prospective issues of a nuclear crisis in North Korea from the perspective of Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States. This piece is a shorter version of a NAPSNet Special Report from the Nautilus Institute.

By David von Hippel and Peter Hayes

Nuclear Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

In spite of the May 10, 2017 election of a pro-engagement ROK President, tensions on the Korea peninsula remain high.  Although the reactions of United States President Donald Trump to further provocations—nuclear weapons or missile tests, for example, or simply the usual shrill rhetoric and next possible military provocation by the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (the DPRK, or “North Korea”) are difficult to predict, in his first few months in office Mr. Trump has already shown a willingness to use or show force as deterrent and a means of persuasion.   The U.S. use of cruise missiles in early April to attack a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the Syrian government’s chemical weapons use, the use of a huge “Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb” in Afghanistan a week later, and the dispatching of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its strike group to the Western Pacific in late April have not escaped the DPRK’s notice,  and have resulted in further threats on the U.S. and its allies in the region from DPRK media, including threats of attacks with conventional and nuclear weapons.  For its part, the DPRK continues to fire missiles into the East Sea/Sea of Japan, although it has not tested a long range missile nor carried out a seventh nuclear test, as many had anticipated earlier this year.

How many nuclear weapons of what types the DPRK possesses, where those weapons are located, and whether the DPRK already has the technology to make weapons small enough to launch on one of its missiles are all subjects of debate among DPRK-watchers.  One thing that is clear is that the plutonium used to make at least many of the weapons in the DPRK’s arsenal was, and likely is being, produced in a small “magnox” reactor at the DPRK’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center in Pyong’an Province, about 90 km north of Pyongyang.  Analysts estimate that the magnox reactor has been reactivated since mid-2016.

A recently-built experimental light-water reactor (ELWR) at the complex also appears complete in satellite photos, although there is no evidence that it has operated as yet.  It too could be a source of plutonium for weapons.

Also in use at Yongbyon are a facility for separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel, and a center for enriching uranium, both of which can produce fissile material usable in nuclear weapons.  This set of facilities makes Yongbyon an obvious potential target for an adversary determined to damage the DPRK’s nuclear weapons production capability.

At the same time, due in part to the lack of a safety culture in the DPRK in both construction and operation practices, a nuclear accident at one or both of the reactors is not out of the question.  Such an accident or attack would likely result in some release of radioactive materials.  As such, populations potentially downwind from Yongbyon, and those concerned with their welfare, might reasonably ask “What could be the radiological consequences of an accident at or attack on one of the reactors?” And would the threat of such releases give U.S. policymakers pause before attacking such facilities?  And could North Koreans hope to obtain coercive leverage from the risk of accidents in negotiations to settle the nuclear issue?

Background: The DPRK’s Nuclear Reactors

Apart from a small research reactor, also located at Yongbyon, that is used occasionally to produced istotopes for medical use, the two operational (or potentially operational) nuclear reactors known to exist in the DPRK are the magnox and ELWR reactors mentioned above (see Figure One).

The magnox reactor uses graphite as a moderator (to slow neutrons produced by the nuclear chain reaction) and cooled with carbon dioxide gas.  “Magnox” refers to the magnesium alloy (magnesium/aluminum) cladding material used for the reactor’s fuel rods.  Construction on the reactor began in 1979, and was completed in 1986.  It has a nominal power rating of 5 MWe (megawatts electric), and a thermal power range of 20-25MW, though in fact it is our understanding that it does not generate electricity, but does provide some heat for the Yongbyon complex.[1]  By way of comparison, most commercial nuclear reactor units in use around the world are rated at on the order of 1000 MWe, so the DPRK’s magnox reactor is small in comparison.   The design of the reactor is modeled after the United Kingdom’s Calder Hall reactor,[2] though the DPRK reactor is considerably smaller.  The magnox reactor uses natural, not enriched, uranium.  The reactor core contains about 50 tonnes of uranium.


Yongbyon by Google Earth

Figure One:  The DPRK’s Experimental Light Water Reactor and Magnox Reactor[3]

Note: The ELWR is the white-domed building near the bottom of the picture, while the magnox reactor is the off-white building with the reddish roof and the smokestack located in the upper middle of the image.

The experimental LWR at Yongbyon was revealed in 2010 to a delegation from the United States including Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University.  Shortly thereafter, Hecker described his visit in a report that also expressed concerns about the potential safety shortcomings of a DPRK reactor.  If those safety concerns are realized, the DPRK LWR could, once commissioned, be vulnerable to accidents causing significant radioactive releases. As described to Hecker by his Korean hosts, and as observed by Hecker and his colleagues, the under-construction DPRK LWR was planned to have (and, we assume, has or will have) a designed heat output of 100 thermal megawatts (MWth), an electricity generation capacity of 25-30 MWe, and a level of enrichment in U235 of 3.50 percent, with a mass of uranium in the reactor core of 4 tonnes heavy metal (tHM).

Potential Release of Radioactive Materials from DPRK Reactors as a Result of Accident or Attack

Concerns about the release of radioactive material from damaged reactors, and concerns regarding potential exposure of populations living downwind of the reactors, focuses on the radioactive isotope cesium-137 (Cs137).  Cs137 can be distributed by prevailing, and is easily dissolved in water and thus can make its way into the tissues of the body, where its decay produces gamma radiation that can cause damage including increasing the probability of the growth of cancers.  The Cs137 inventory in the DPRK’s magnox reactor is about 3.7 PBq, a measure of radioactivity.[4]   Our estimate of the potential Cs137 inventory in the ELWR reactor core is a maximum of about 9 PBq just before refueling, with up to an additional 40 PBq building up in the reactors’ spent fuel pool over 20 years (assuming that spent fuel is not removed for reprocessing or disposal).   By way of comparison, the inventory of Cs137 in the reactors and spent fuel pools involved in the Fukushima accident totaled nearly 3000 PBq, although only a small fraction of that total was released during the accident.

The summary of our estimates of radiation release resulting from several scenarios of accident at or attack on the DPRK ELWR was that even in the event of an worst-case attack that caused releases from the reactor AND the spent fuel pool, and which occurred when the spent fuel pool was full (some 20 years from start-up), exposure to individuals exceeding United States Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for long-term radiation exposure would be limited to Yongbyon and small DPRK towns in the vicinity, and would not extend to, for example, Pyongyang or Seoul, even if prevailing winds were in those directions.  Given the much smaller inventory of Cs137 in the DPRK’s magnox reactor, even in the event that the entire inventory was released (presumably because the graphite core burns, although we do not know the likelihood of such an event[5]), the exposure would be less than our estimate for the ELWR.

It is unclear what additional inventories of Cs137 a large attack on Yongbyon might release—perhaps from the spent fuel pool storing spent magnox fuel or from reprocessing wastes located at the site, for example—but these quantities would not change our general finding that significant radiation exposure is highly unlikely to occur except in DPRK territory within about 20 kilometers of Yongbyon.


In the event of even a large and targeted attack on Yongbyon, significant radiological consequences will be limited to DPRK territory nearby.  The major impacts of the attack or the threat of an attack beyond the local area will therefore be in the response elicited from the DPRK military, the psychological influences on more distant populations, and the effects on policies in the region.

Following an attack on Yongbyon, the possibility of a reciprocal, retaliatory attack by the DPRK, given DPRK rhetoric, would seem substantial.  DPRK retaliation could come either in the form of an attack by the DPRK with conventional weapons on ROK military and civilian targets, essentially starting a war, or an attack on one of the ROK’s much larger LWRs or spent fuel storage sites, via, for example, missile strikes or invasions by a commando group.  Thus, rather than the risk of radiological release making the United States and its allies think twice about attacking the DPRK’s nuclear facilities, the real risk that is likely to give the United States and its allies pause when considering an attack on Yongbyon is the risk of North Korean “reciprocal but a-symmetric and escalatory retaliation.”

This deterrent effect exists because the risks to populations and economic losses arising from successful North Korean missile bombardment of ROK LWRs or spent fuel sites are much greater to the ROK (including not only radiological exposure, but prospective loss of large fractions of the ROK’s power supply) than the consequences of a successful attack on the DPRK’s reactors.  In short, the United States and its allies control most of the variables that would result in substantial radiological release from the DPRK’s small reactors, but any leverage arising from that dominance is offset by the reciprocal threat posed by DPRK retaliation to ROK LWRs, neutralizing the US-ROK threat from the DPRK’s perspective.

Similarly, subsequent to an attack on one or both of the DPRK’s reactors, even though radiation doses above a threshold for substantial harm would not reach populations in the Republic of Korea—for winds blowing toward the south, as prevail in winter—or in China—for winds blowing toward the north, as prevail in summer—populations in these neighboring countries would certainly be concerned.  Thus, the primary predictable impacts of a radiological release—or the threat of a release—from the DPRK’s LWR will be psychological, in terms of downwind perceptions and anxiety on the part of exposed or potentially exposed populations, and political, in terms of the policies adopted in anticipation of or as a result of such an event.  As such, it is the consideration of the response of ROK and/or Chinese public mobilization in advance of a strike on Yongbyon due to fear of war—compounded by fear of radiation, even if ill-founded—that would serve as a deterrent to an attack on Yongbyon, rather than consideration of the direct radiological consequences of such an attack.


Dr. David Von Hippel is a Nautilus Institute Senior Associate and Peter Hayes is Honorary Professor, Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University, Australia and Director, Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, California. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Wapster’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


[1] Other sources suggest that the DPRK”s magnox reactor does produce, or at least has produced, electricity.  See for example Chaim Braun, Siegfried Hecker, Chris Lawrence, and Panos Papadiamantis (2016), North Korean Nuclear Facilities After the Agreed Framework, dated May 27, 2016, and available as http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/khucisacfinalreport_compressed.pdf.

[2] An early description of the Calder Hall reactors is provided in Kenneth Jay (1956), Calder Hall: The Story of Britain’s First Atomic Power Station.  Harcourt Brace and Company, New York, 1956.

[3] Credit: GoogleEarth, May 14, 2017

[4] A petabecquerel, or 1015 Bq, represents a rate of radioactive decay equal to 1 disintegration per second.  37 billion (3.7 x 1010) Bq equals 1 curie (Ci). See, for example, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (2013), “Becquerel (Bq)”, available as http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/basic-ref/glossary/becquerel-bq.html.  Our estimate assumes a reactor core that is ready for refueling, that is, has been subjected to an average of 635 MW-days/tU of “burnup”, a value reported as the average burnup for the DPRK magnox reactor by Jooho Whang and George T Baldwin (2005) in the Sandia National Laboratory Report Dismantlement and Radioactive Waste Management of DPRK Nuclear

Facilities (available as https://www.osti.gov/scitech/servlets/purl/957471/), although other sources suggest that burnup in this reactor could be higher, which would increase its maximum Cs137 inventory.

[5] In a 1957 accident at the Windscale plutonium production facility in the UK, some of the graphite moderator did catch on fire, though that reactor was cooled with air, not CO2 as the DPRK’s magnox reactor is.  Similarly, in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the graphite moderator of that water-cooled reactor burned, contributing to the atmospheric dispersion of radioactivity in the core.  We do not know whether an attack on the DPRK’s magnox reactor could cause a substantial fraction of the graphite core to burn, though we suspect that some organization has probably analyzed such an event.  Our point here is that even if the graphite core were to burn and the entire Cs137 inventory in the reactor core was released, the event would be insufficient to exceed radiological risk thresholds even tens of kilometers from Yongbyon.

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U.S.-Korea Relations: The Obama Years

By Troy Stangarone

Summing up a presidential legacy is a complex endeavor. There are countless details that are either unknown or just too difficult to fit into the flow of a single piece. There are choice that in the immediate term may seem wise, but in the hindsight of years less so. While mistakes today may come to be viewed as prudent years on. This is even more the case when it deals with only a single aspect of one part of the presidency, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. A relationship that while vibrant and strong, is also inevitably tied to both countries’ relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For the last eight years, we’ve seen a relationship that has grown beyond the Cold War confines of the threat from North Korea and that has begun to evolve into more of a partnership that works together both in the region and on the global stage. This shift was possible in large thanks to the relationship that the Obama administration inherited and the partners they had to work with in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

When President George W. Bush handed U.S.-Korea relations over to President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, he handed over an alliance that was in good shape. While the relationship between the United States and South Korea had been rocky at times during the early years of the Bush administration, even during those difficult times progress was made on the alliance. As a result President Obama inherited an alliance that was already growing and changing as Bush administration left a legacy of a completed but unratified free trade agreement with South Korea (KORUS FTA), and agreements to move U.S. Forces Korea from Seoul to Camp Humphreys near Pyongtaek and to transfer wartime control of South Korean forces back to the South Korean government.

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built on the foundations of the alliance it inherited. While the alliance remains rooted in the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, the Obama administration has worked with South Korea to move the alliance beyond deterring North Korea. Perhaps most critically in this was the administration’s support for Lee Myung-bak administration’s efforts to see South Korea contribute more to the global community. As part of these efforts, the Obama administration supported Seoul’s efforts to host the G-20 leaders summit in 2010 and asked South Korea to host the second Nuclear Security Summit as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance global nuclear security.

Beyond summits, the Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with South Korea in a wide range of areas that are now referred to as the New Frontier issues and include areas such as cyber security, climate change and global health. As an example, in the area of global heath South Korea worked with the United States and other nations to deal with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

In the economic relationship, the Obama administration engaged South Korea in additional negotiations to address concerns related to trade in autos with the KORUS FTA. After reaching an agreement, the KORUS FTA went into effect on  March 15, 2012. The administration also negotiated a new 123 agreement to continue civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea.

At the core of the alliance, defense cooperation, the administration has proceeded and largely concluded the efforts begun by the Bush administration to move U.S. troops from Seoul to Camp Humphreys. It also updated the decision to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea by moving the agreement from a deadline based transition to a conditions based agreement that would implement the transition only once South Korea has developed the intelligence and command infrastructure necessary to undertake operational control of forces.

If the relationship with South Korea has been a boon for Obama, than it is the relationship with North Korea where the long eye of history may have more to say in the years to come. While he inherited a North Korea that had already tested a nuclear weapon, North Korea has gone on to conduct four additional nuclear tests during his time in office and he will pass along to the Trump administration a much more dangerous North Korea than he inherited.  Many have criticized the Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” approach, but alternatives are limited if the goal is a denuclearized North Korea within a short time span.  There may have been other tools that the Obama Administration used over the past eight years that are not in the public domain to prod change in North Korea that only time and change in North Korea may tell.

Much as in the case of South Korea, leadership has likely played a role in the deteriorating situation with North Korea. If President Obama was fortunate to have willing partners in South Korea, the death of Kim Jong-il left a much more aggressive Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea. While Kim Jong-il famously slapped away Obama’s inaugural offer of talks, it is unclear if diplomacy could have played much of a role in convincing Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, the Obama administration negotiated a moratorium on missile launches that North Korea would soon violate and despite efforts by the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea to build relations with North Korea Kim Jong-un instead chose to greet her administration with confrontation through an ICBM test, a nuclear test, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong. It is perhaps telling that a U.S. administration that, despite domestic opposition, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and reopened relations with Myanmar and Cuba found North Korea an unwilling partner for improving relations.

With the path to negotiations closed the administration instead pursued a course of increasing pressure on North Korea. It’s perhaps most significant achievement on this end was the development of increased cooperation with China on sanctions in the United Nations. While the robust sanctions negotiated after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January of 2016 were found to have been flawed, those sanctions were revised after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test to close loopholes and being to bring real pressure on North Korea.

In addition to international sanctions, the administration took advantage of new sanctions authorities granted to it by Congress, though perhaps reluctantly and not to the degree critics of the administration might have hoped. Perhaps most significantly on this front, the administration has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their roles in human rights violations in North Korea.

Perhaps the last legacy item for the Obama administration in regards to North Korea has been its efforts to increase the deterrent capabilities of the alliance. It reached an agreement with South Korea to expand the range of South Korean missiles to allow Seoul to be able to target any area of North Korea and to help facilitate its “kill chain” concept of being out to take out North Korean nuclear facilities prior to an imminent attack. On the more controversial side, it also worked with Japan to develop new defense guidelines that would allow Japan to play a more active role if the U.S. were to come under attack and which would also aid in a contingency on the Korean peninsula and for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect parts of South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

For President Obama it will be a strong legacy he leaves with South Korea, a nation that he visited more often than all but France, the UK, Germany, and Mexico and developed close personal relationships. It is North Korea where time may judge him more harshly, or depending on the actions taken by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration come to view him as prudent. By his own standards, President Obama has done well.  He once described his foreign policy philosophy as looking for singles and doubles, and “don’t do stupid s@#%.” By that standard, President Obama has managed U.S.-Korea relations well. He’s made progress on a range of issues and avoided serious mistakes, and despite challenges presented by North Korea, he stands to hand the alliance over to his successor, Donald Trump, much as President George W. Bush did to him, in good shape.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.