Exploring the Sweet Spot of Nuclear Latency of North Korea for Effective Denuclearization
APLN-Korea Times Essay Contest

Exploring the Sweet Spot of Nuclear Latency of North Korea for Effective Denuclearization

APLN and Korea Times Essay Contest Honorable Mention

Exploring the “Sweet Spot” of Nuclear Latency of North Korea for Effective Denuclearization Process

By Chul-min KIM

Should the ultimate goal of North Korea’s denuclearization be to abandon all of their nuclear capabilities? I would like to argue the opposite. In order for North Korea to achieve a nuclear deal in the form of abolishing its nuclear weapons, other countries should allow them to possess sufficient ENR capabilities and provide a nuclear power plant to solve the energy supply problems they face.

Contrary to popular belief, countries that voluntarily abandoned nuclear weapons, such as Ukraine and South Africa, also had high levels of nuclear latency for a certain period of time after their declaration of denuclearization. Similar type of great bargain was also made between the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT). North Korea can only give up its nuclear weapons only with this tacit consent.

Since the ENR technology development is not prohibited in the NPT, some NNWS could have developed extensive level of latency. Some of them leveraged it to practicecoercive diplomacy [1] andenjoyed bargaining and deterrence benefits [2]. From this perspective, in orderto achieve the goal of North Korea’s denuclearization while ensuring thestability of the regime, ensuring a high level of latency can be a moreattractive proposal than any political promise. Considering the politicalcomplexity of East Asia, North Korea’s complete denuclearization, or completeabandonment of nuclear capabilities and regime stability cannot coexist. Amongthe countries participated in the six-party talks, three countries (USA, Chinaand Russia) are Nuclear Weapon States (NWS). Japan has indigenized, completefuel cycle technology including significant amount of domestic Plutoniumstockpile. South Korea has a lower level of nuclear latency than Japan, but hasa high level of fuel cycle research capability and at the same time is mostsensitive to the security threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons. How couldNorth Korea give up their nuclear warheads, without having any substitutenuclear capabilities?

‘Although many recent studies have analyzedthe effect of nuclear latency on international politics, very little isactually known about nuclear latency [3]. Where is the sweet spot of nuclear latencyin Northeast Asia?Since it is reasonable to believe that North Korea has already secured nuclear weapons capabilities above the level of SouthAfrica, it is highly likelythat the potential sweet spotof latency should be set at least at the level of South Africa. One option is to give up the Plutonium stockpileinstead of allowing commercial enrichment of 20% of the ENR, or conversely togive up the HEU instead of allowing the use of the MOX form of Plutonium. Sinceit is difficult to secure high-reliability explosive technologies andbombardment technologies to reach the United States in a short period of time,North Korea has sufficient incentives to accept them.

At this time, the NWS should only negotiatenuclear weapons dismantling, and South Korea and Japan should proposesafeguards and verification of North Korea’s fuel cycle facility in order tobalance latency. If the three Korea,Japan, and North Korea negotiate the nuclear latency level and performthe fuel cyclefacility verification processin the presence of the IAEA,the security threats that Korea and Japan face can be reduced, thus reducingthe motivation for nuclear hedging. This will increase nuclear transparency,promote regional stability, and ultimately enable peaceful conversion of North Korean fuel cycle facilities.

In addition, nuclearpower plants can not only contribute to the stable energy supplythat North Korea longs for, but can also be used as a tool topromote participation in international norms. In other words, this contributesto reducing proliferation risk by increasing their nuclear transparency andincreasing the opportunity cost of energy supply.Since nuclear power plants enable continuous supply of sensitivematerials, it has been recognized that they can be used for hedging and aid inbuilding latency in the country in the name of supplying energy (dual-purpose). However, nuclear power plants can lower proliferation risk insituations where an ENR plant is already in operation. [4].

Before the establishment of thenonproliferation regime based on the NPT and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the 1970s, there were cases of using a nuclear powerplant as a dualpurpose. However, after the establishment of the NPT, nuclear power has been used as a factor that hinders proliferation. [4].Historically, nuclear reactors in the KEDO project were cards that couldbe exchanged for the development of North KoreanENR capabilities. However,with full ENR capability as well as nuclear weapons, they have goodreason to take seriously the proposal of a stable nuclear material supply andnuclear reactor supply.

After North Korea operates a nuclear reactorto supply energy, it cannot be easilyabandoned due to the importance of domestic energy supply. A gas pipeline connecting China-Russia- NorthKorea-Korea-Japan may be a good option, but nuclear reactors are moreadvantageous for international surveillance and control. Of course, this holdson the premise that the reactor is under the IAEA safeguards agreement. Remotesafeguards technology, which is being developed recently, could contribute to increased nucleartransparency while North Korea feels less reluctant.

Therefore, for denuclearization in NorthKorea, a closed fuel cycle must be allowed and a nuclear power plant must be constructed. This is an attractive optionas it satisfies North Korea’s desire to complete its indigenous fuel cycle, while reducing their nuclear latencyto manageable levels. At thistime, Korea and Japan should actively participate in the verification processof North Korea’s fuel cycle facility in order to promote regional nuclearnonproliferation by raising East Asia’s nuclear transparency.

[1] Volpe, T.A., 2017. Atomic Leverage: Compellence withNuclear Latency. Secur. Stud. 26,517–544. https://doi.org/10.1080/09636412.2017.1306398

[2] Fuhrmann, M.,Tkach, B., 2015. Almost nuclear: Introducing the Nuclear Latency dataset.

Confl. Manag. Peace Sci.https://doi.org/10.1177/0738894214559672

[3] Whitlark, R.E., Mehta, R.N., 2019. Hedgingour bets: Why does nuclear latency matter?

Wash. Q. 42, 41–52.https://doi.org/10.1080/0163660X.2019.1592363

[4] Kim, C. M. Park,H. S., and Yim, M. S., Nuclear Latency, Nuclear Power and NuclearProliferation. Working Paper.