Many have drawn somber implications of the war in Ukraine, but at least one development holds promising implications for containing a potential crisis on the Korean Peninsula: the push to create a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, spearheaded by Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Even if the chances of a lasting agreement are uncertain, Grossi’s efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine are laudable. It shows that even countries at war have an interest in sitting down to discuss how to limit the serious consequences of attacks on nuclear facilities.
For the Korean Peninsula, it is worth considering whether North and South Korea can reach a similar deal. A mutual agreement not to target or attack each other’s nuclear facilities could function as a basic trust-building mechanism. It would be in the interest of both Koreas, as well as neighboring countries that could be subject to fallout in case nuclear facilities come under attack.
It is worth considering such an agreement, now that tensions once again mount on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea is likely preparing for its seventh nuclear test, and has increased the rate of missile tests, including by firing one over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. In response, South Korea and the United States have fired a series of missiles into the sea between South Korea and Japan.
One of the South Korean missiles failed right after launch and landed a mere 700 meters away from the nearest residential area, highlighting the risk that even supposedly advanced missile capabilities do not always work as intended. In addition to the failed South Korean launch, a large number of North Korean launches have failed in recent years, so one can rightfully question how capable either country is of accurately targeting military assets deployed close to critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities.
North Korea has only one operational power plant, the one at Yongbyon, and it is not used for civilian power production, but principally for nuclear weapons development. The United States, South Korea and perhaps even China may well consider the Yongbyon power plant a legitimate military target.
Attacks on reactors or facilities handling spent fuel could cause widespread radioactive contamination that could potentially transcend borders. Estimates vary, but some argue that the fallout from a major radioactive incident at Yongbyon could reach as far as Japan.
Even if some more conservative estimates hold that significant radiation exposure is unlikely to occur outside of a relatively small area surrounding the plant, the psychological effect of such an incident on the populations in surrounding countries would be severe. It is in nobody’s interests that any nuclear facilities on the Korean Peninsula become targets of military attack.
The protection of nuclear reactors and associated facilities in times of conflict should also include the protection of their power and electrical supply to ensure the maintenance of nuclear safety and functions, most importantly coolant water for reactors and spent fuel storage sites. Even a partial disablement of support facilities at Yongbyon could have severe consequences.
As of 2022, South Korea has 25 operational nuclear power reactors at four power plants. The current South Korean government is not only planning to construct additional nuclear reactors, but also pursuing an ambitious nuclear energy strategy to export 10 reactors over the next 10 years, and to increase the total share of nuclear energy in the country’s fossil fuel-dependent energy mix. It is therefore also in South Korea’s interest to ensure the safety of its nuclear industrial complex.
Both Koreas are parties to the Additional Protocols of the Geneva Conventions which forbid attacks on “nuclear electrical generating stations.” As nuclear policy expert John Carlson points out, the provisions apply only to nuclear power plants, not to other nuclear facilities, which can also be sources of substantial radiation releases. However, the general principles of international humanitarian law also apply, requiring protection of civilians, avoidance of widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment, and avoidance of trans-border damage to non-belligerent states.
To more explicitly protect all nuclear facilities, cooperation between North and South Korea on the protection of nuclear facilities in times of conflict could be modeled after India and Pakistan’s 1988 Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations and Facilities. This bilateral treaty is not limited to only protecting nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes; it also prohibits “undertaking, encouraging or participating in” attacks on “any nuclear installation or facility.” To this end, India and Pakistan have exchanged lists of nuclear installations annually since 1992.
Of course, there are many political and logistical challenges. For example, North Korea’s hidden nuclear facilities might present a dilemma, especially as it is unsure whether South Korea is already aware of their location. The bilateral treaty could also be expanded to include other relevant parties. Bringing the United States into the agreement would strengthen the credibility of South Korea’s no-attack commitment. China, which has several nuclear reactors operating or planned in the Liaoning and Shandong provinces surrounding the Korean Peninsula, might also benefit from the agreement.
It is too early to gauge the success of the IAEA’s efforts to bring about an agreement regarding Zaporizhzhia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s poor record on keeping promises does not bode well for the arrangement. Kim Jong-un is also unlikely to abide by behavior simply because it is put to print.
But by striking a deal that speaks to the self-interest of all parties, and by starting that effort before a conflict breaks out, it could not only help build trust between those parties, but also prevent a radiological disaster with long-lasting health, psychological and political impacts. Some might argue that now is not the time to discuss complicated agreements between the two Koreas to protect nuclear facilities. But as the case of Zaporizhzhia shows, now is a much better time than the middle of an open conflict.
This article was published in The Korea Times on 12 October 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.
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Image: The Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea as depicted by Google Earth.