Hanoi, Vietnam: When United States President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un later this week, North Korea’s sprawling Yongbyon Nuclear Research Centre will be squarely in the crosshairs.
A credible offer to close the complex down has become an important benchmark for the summit’s success, diplomats, officials and experts say. But it’s far from clear that target can be achieved.
“It’s a big, big deal,” said Siegfried Hecker, a leading nuclear scientist at Stanford who has visited the complex four times. “I view Yongbyon as the heart of their nuclear programme.”
Yongbyon is home to North Korea’s only three nuclear reactors and is its only source of plutonium for potential nuclear weapons. It is also believed to be the only source of tritium to build powerful thermonuclear devices.
Finally, it is one site — but not the only one — at which North Korea produces highly enriched uranium capable of use in warheads, experts say.
Closing Yongbyon would do nothing to reduce North Korea’s current arsenal of nuclear bombs and missiles. And it remains unclear whether Kim Jong Un is prepared to surrender that arsenal.
But a complete and verifiable closure of Yongbyon would significantly slow down the pace at which North Korea could build new nuclear weapons, and would be a concrete step in the direction of turning the broad principles expressed at last year’s Singapore summit into measurable progress, experts and diplomats say.
Expectations were raised when Kim Jong-un told his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in last September that he was prepared to permanently close Yongbyon if the United States takes “corresponding measures.”
Can the two sides agree?
Last month, US envoy Stephen Biegun said Kim had gone significantly further, pledging to dismantle and destroy all of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium-enrichment facilities at “a complex of sites” extending beyond Yongbyon, if the United States reciprocates with measures of its own.
The next question is whether the two sides can agree on those “corresponding measures.”
It’s clear that North Korea wants sanctions relief. Yet, the US is reluctant to ease the pressure significantly. It is far from clear they will bridge that gap in Hanoi next week.
Even if they do, the devil is in the details, says Melissa Hanham at the One Earth Future Foundation. “During the summit the thing that will make me most perk my ears is which parts of Yongbyon may or may not be frozen, or dismantled or suspended,” she said. “I am curious about which facilities and whether they are irreversibly dismantled.”
The reason? We’ve been down this road twice before.
Yongbyon, a complex of 390 buildings stretching over 3.4 square miles (5.4 square km), is home to ten nuclear research institutes, and three reactors: The country’s main nuclear reactor that was opened in 1986 and is the source of its plutonium for nuclear weapons; a less important research reactor built by the Soviet Union; and a new experimental Light Water Reactor that is still thought to be under final construction.
The main reactor is old and was shut down in the 1990s under an agreement with the US, only to be started up again in 2003 after the breakdown of the deal.
In 2007, another deal was reached to shut down the reactor, and the cooling tower was demolished the following year. But when that deal fell apart, North Korea simply pumped in river water to cool the reactor and fired it up again.
Twice bitten, three times shy. This time around the main reactor would have to be disabled quickly and irreversibly to impress anyone on the US side or among its allies.
In 2010, Hecker was also shown into a building at Yongbyon containing around 2,000 centrifuges to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. Since his visit, satellite imagery shows the floor space of that building has doubled. Closing it down and surrendering or destroying the centrifuges would be an essential element of any deal.
The problem is that Yongbyon is not the only place where North Korea is thought to enrich uranium to make nuclear weapons. Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, identified a covert facility at Kangson, just outside Pyongyang, that has became operational in the 2000s, and says there is probably at least one more.
It remains unclear whether Biegun is right to suggest that North Korea is prepared to close down all its uranium enrichment facilities.
North Korea is thought to have anywhere between 20 and 60 nuclear warheads, and the current capability to produce perhaps half a dozen more every year, experts say. North Korea has never given figures on its arsenal.
Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected in 2016, says the process of dismantling and inspecting Yongbyon could also take years, delaying real progress on real denuclearisation. Thae told reporters that Kim has no intention of surrendering his nuclear weapons but will extract what benefits he can by giving away things he no longer really needs.
“North Korea has already produced enough material to churn out nuclear weapons,” he said, adding in reference to Yongbyon: “North Korea’s intention is to repaint their broken-down car and sell it to the United States.”
On January 1, 2018, Kim told his defence industry to “mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles”. Lewis says satellite evidence suggests that process has indeed been happening, in parallel with negotiations.
Satellite images and intelligence reports suggest new liquid-fuelled inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are being built at a complex at Sanumdong, on the outskirts of Pyongyang. A plant producing solid-fuelled, shorter-range missiles has been expanded near the city of Hamhung, while a missile base near the Chinese border also appears to be under expansion to accommodate ICBMs, Lewis said.
“Completing their deterrent and increasing their leverage — exactly what they said they’d do and what they should do,” he said. “Not that I want them to do bad things, but why would they give these things up?”
Nevertheless, closing Yongbyon — and allowing in international inspectors for a credible programme of meaningful dismantlement — would be a big step forward, and add significantly to the outside world’s knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear programme, most experts say.
“So when people ask me, they say ‘This guy is never going to give up his nuclear weapons, he is never going to give them up’, I say: Is he going to give them up? I don’t know — but it’s time to find out.”