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The Peninsula

How Might the U.S. Respond to a Nuclear Crisis at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex?

Published June 1, 2017

This is the fifth 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, South Korea and China.

By Frank Aum

In a nuclear crisis scenario at North Korea’s Yongbyon complex, the primary interest of the United States would be to determine and mitigate any immediate security and health threats to our Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japanese allies as well as the U.S. citizens that reside in these countries and China.  A less immediate, but still urgent, consideration would be how this event might affect stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.

To better assess the immediate and medium-term security implications, the United States would first seek to obtain the most accurate information about the extent of a meltdown at North Korea’s experimental light water reactor, if it were operational, or the burning of the core at its research reactor. Efforts would also be made to determine any radiation leak through intelligence and military channels as well as through close collaboration with its regional allies and partners.  The United States might evaluate whether its military aircraft could get close enough to measure radiation, as well as work with China—which has the closest proximity to Yongbyon—the ROK, Japan, and Russia to share information about the severity of the crisis.  These countries may also seek to get a United Nations Security Council endorsement of an international fact-finding mission to persuade Pyongyang of the issue’s urgency.

Getting accurate information from North Korea directly, however, would probably be a difficult task.  First, it is unclear whether North Korea would even have the technical capabilities and bureaucratic agility to assess the true scope of the problem quickly and effectively.  Even if North Korea had accurate information to share, it is very possible that the regime would not be willing to do so in order to save face, keep the issue internal, or prevent other countries from using the crisis as a pretext for intervention.  A 2016 investigative report of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operated the plant, revealed that TEPCO’s then-president, under alleged pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office, essentially covered up the severity of the crisis by instructing officials not to use the specific term “meltdown.”

Assuming that the United States received accurate information that the crisis is dire and that North Korea’s ability to contain a meltdown or burning reactor core is at best unknown, Washington would then need to consider the security threat to U.S. citizens and regional allies and how to mitigate it.  During the Fukushima crisis, the Japanese government ultimately established a 30 kilometer evacuation zone around the reactor site, with over 60,000 people being evacuated from the prefecture and over 150,000 evacuations total.  The 1986 Chernobyl disaster also resulted in a 30 kilometer evacuation zone but with a far greater area affected by radiation.  Although the greater metropolitan Seoul area is more than 200 kilometers from Yongbyon, depending on the severity of the crisis and the likelihood of prompt containment, the United States would have to consider a range of options, including releasing an advisory on potential health risks, calling for voluntary evacuation of U.S. citizens, and relocating U.S. troops from forward-deployed areas and the greater Seoul area to bases further south, and even evacuation operations from the Korean Peninsula depending on how the situation develops in a catastrophic scenario.  These options would also have to be weighed against competing factors, such as requests for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations and the security mission of the 28,500 U.S. service members in South Korea.  Similar considerations may also apply to U.S. citizens and forces in Japan.

Concurrent with addressing the security threats, the United States would also likely offer technical assistance and expertise to North Korea directly or as part of a multinational effort to help resolve the crisis.  Faster containment of the emergency would mitigate the intensity and reach of first and second order effects.  One problem may be that North Korea could be slow in recognizing the urgency of the crisis or asking for assistance, exacerbating the crisis even more.  A worst case scenario might entail Pyongyang’s unwillingness to request or accept outside assistance, leading to internal deliberations within the U.S.-ROK Alliance and China about whether national security concerns demanded military intervention into North Korea.  It is more likely, however, that North Korea would accept limited civilian assistance long before military intervention became a realistic option.  Another possibility, given Yongbyon’s relative proximity to the Chinese border and the potential for instability and refugee outflows, is that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police could take the lead role in providing technical and humanitarian assistance to North Korea, which might be more palatable for Pyongyang than a U.S.-led effort.

There is a potential risk that the chaos of a nuclear crisis and subsequent North Korean evacuation operations from the Yongbyon area could spiral into a breakdown in government and overall instability.  In this case, there might be some concern in Washington that, amid this chaos, separatist factions or opportunistic individuals may have access to sensitive material, technology, or expertise related to weapons of mass destruction that could then be traded or sold outside of the country and delivered into the hands of rogue states or terrorist organizations.  According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s 2016 Nuclear Security Index, North Korea ranked last among 24 countries that possessed weapons-usable nuclear materials with respect to the risk of theft of nuclear materials.  This situation would pose a significant dilemma given the ongoing crisis and the lack of access to North Korean territory.  If there was compelling evidence that sensitive WMD materials have been compromised, the United States would have to work with China, Russia, the ROK, and Japan to ensure that these materials do leave the country and enter into proliferation networks.

Frank Aum is a Visiting Scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins SAIS and a former Senior Advisor for North Korea at Department of Defense. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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