Fear of ‘Asian Chernobyl’ in DPRK stand-down?

The de-escalation in the crisis on the Korean peninsula reached a welcome turning point April 21, as the Pyongyang government announced that it will suspend nuclear and missile tests—and shut down the Punggye-ri test site in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong. An official statement quoted leader Kim Jong-un saying that North Korea has "verified the completion of nuclear weapons," and now "the Party and our nation will focus all its [sic] efforts towards socialist economic development." He concluded that "the northern nuclear test site has finished its mission." Official media said the statement came at a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, convened to discuss policy issues related to a "new stage" in an "historic period." The two Koreas are set to hold a summit meeting next week at the border village of Panmunjom, while Kim is to meet in the coming weeks with US President Donald Trump at a yet-to-be-announced location.

But despite this face-saving rhetoric, some reports suggest the cessation of the testing program could be motivated by fear of imminent disaster at the Punggye-ri site. Between October 2006 and September 2017, the North has conducted six nuclear detonations at the facility—which has, of course, been closely monitored via satellite by the South, as well as Western governments, Geological experts have raised concerns that the site may have become fatigued and unstable from the nuclear tests, and could be in danger of collapse. (Yonhap, GMA, Business Standard, India, April 21)

Although it received little international coverage, Japan's TV Asahi reported in October that a tunnel at the Punggye-ri site collapsed after Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test there the previous month—possibly killing more than 200 people. The report, citing unnamed sources familiar with the situation, said that some 100 were killed in the initial collapse on or around Sept. 10; a second collapse during the rescue operation may have killed that many again. (Business Standard, India, Oct. 31)

Around that same time last year, there were reports from defectors that North Korea's nuclear tests were spreading a "ghost disease" in North Hamgyong province, causing birth defects and sickening civilians exposed to radiation.

Robert E. Kelly, a professor of international relations at Soiuth Korea's Pusan National University, also cited the fear of a "Chernobyl-style" meltdown at the North's nuclear facilities. He noted that North Korea likely already has 30-50 warheads, and can afford to suspend the program for now. (The Guardian, April 21) Earlier this month, the 38 North website, which closely monitors military and nuclear activity in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, reported signs that operations were winding down at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, where plutonium for the weapons program is produced.

Days before Pyongyang's announcement, 38 North made note of a new report by Oleg Shcheka, a professor of physics and chemistry based in Russia's far east city of Vladivostok, warning that lax safety standards, poor maintenance and disdain for operational protocols at Yongbyon are placing 100 million people across northeast Asia in "mortal danger." Shcheka invoked the risk of an accident similar to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Soviet Ukraine. The USSR helped build the first reactor at Yongbyon in 1965, and technicians apparently took note of the lax standards there. Shcheka wrote: "Soviet technical specialists who assisted the DPRK in the 1960s repeatedly noted North Koreans' willingness to cut corners in terms of safety standards for the sake of construction speed."

Even if weapons production is to be suspended, the risks continue. The DPRK has also been building a 100-megawatt Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) at the Yongbyon center, with an eye toward using nuclear power for electrical generation. Shcheka said there may be other as-yet-undisclosed nuclear facilities in development for either civilian (power generation) and military (plutonium production) functions. (The Telegraph, April 20)

Map: Federation of American Scientists

  1. Chinese geologists: North Korea nuclear test site collapsed

    A study by Chinese geologists shows the mountain above North Korea’s main nuclear test site has collapsed under the stress of the explosions, rendering it unsafe for further testing and necessitating monitoring for any leaking radiation. The findings by the scientists at the University of Science and Technology of China may shed new light on Kim Jong Un’s announcement that his country was ceasing its testing program. (AP)