In a move sure to destabilize already tense conditions on the Korean peninsula, North Korea is set to restart its nuclear reactor. This development comes in spite of warnings from Russian experts that the plant has badly deteriorated and may be primed for disaster. With the world already reeling from the Fukushima meltdown, North Korea could be setting up the region for yet another disaster.
North Korea is restarting the reactor
The five megawatt Yongbyong reactor was shut down in 2007 as part of a disarmament agreement. Now, North Korea is restarting the reactor. This follows a nuclear test in the spring of 2013 and the declaration of a state of war with South Korea. The move highlights North Korea’s increasing shift toward confrontation with South Korea and world powers, including the United States.
The Yongbyong reactor was first built in 1985 with the assistance of the Soviet Union. North Korea signed the Non-proliferation Treaty and agreed not to produce weapons, though it later violated the agreement. The reactor is a small 5 megawatt experimental reactor capable of producing electricity. The reactor itself has been shut down and reactivated numerous times over the last 20 years as a part of various disarmament deals. Much of the infrastructure, including cooling systems, has been torn down or fallen into disrepair.
Rhetoric had actually been cooling over the summer and there was some hope that brokered disarmament talks could be restarted. The restarting of the Yongbyon reactor, however, will represent a major step back. The United States has made it very clear that the world’s foremost super power will not accept a nuclear armed North Korea and that any moves to normalize relations will have to be accompanied with nuclear disarmament.
North Korea’s moves are sure to strain already tense relations between North Korea and China. While China has traditionally been North Korea’s closest ally, tensions have been strained in recent years. China is looking to secure its place as a superpower on the world state, but North Korea’s continuing antics are becoming a hindrance and even embarrassment. The Chinese find themselves in a tough place, however, because if North Korea becomes destabilized it would affect the entire regions economy and likely send millions of refugees over the border and into China.
The nuclear plant is “nightmarish”
Russian diplomats have also been irked by the move. Russian experts have warned that the nuclear plant is in “nightmarish” condition and restarting it could lead to disaster. North Korea has long been under embargoes meant to deprive it from securing the supplies and materials needed to run the nuclear plant. After multiple violations of the non-proliferation treaty and other events, world powers have grown increasingly angry over North Korea’s broken promises and false starts on disarmament.
The motives behind secretive North Korea’s actions are hard to discern but many people believe that Kim Jong-un is trying to shore up power. Years of embargo have all but destroyed the North Korean economy. At the same time, a rumored crystal meth epidemic is thought to be spreading through the country. Confronted with so many challenges, Kim Jong-un may be hoping to cement his power and influence by confronting the West and South Korea.