Report on the Asia Institute Seminar on Nuclear power in North Korea (March 22, 2012)

Stephane Mot published this article about the lively discussion at the Asia Institute seminar on North Korea’s nuclear program held on Thursday.


Dr. Kim Myungja
President Green 21
(former minister of the environment; author of “The
Nuclear Dilemma”)
Dr. Sok Chul Kim
Senior Researcher
Korea Institute for Nuclear Safety
Ms. Sharon Squassoni
Proliferation Prevention Program
Mr. Scott Snyder
Senior Fellow for Korea Studies
Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
Council on Foreign Relations

North Korea and Nukes: Back to the Stone Age?

As expected, North Korea set the agenda ahead of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit (see focus on Seoul Village), this time by announcing for April a ‘satellite’ launch in the general direction of (Japan, thank Kim The Third for small mercies) the East China Sea.

Shooting Southwards doesn’t make sense if you want to optimize a satellite launch and leverage the Earth’s rotation, or in the case of North Korea, if you want to minimize the risks of casualties, but of course, that’s not the aim of the game. And speaking of games: sweeping such a big fat “dolsot” curling stone all the way down to the hottest spot of contention between Korea and Japan*… my oh my, what a smart way of piggybacking international conflicts! You know, like a M-VNO entering a market without rolling out its own wireless network? These guys are inventing low cost dictatorship!

As is often the case, this latest crisis can be interpreted as the North Korean idea of a private joke between what passes for the executive power there and the local army (I know, these days, distinguishing one from the other is the equivalent of a hairsplitting contest in a Buddhist monastery, particularly now that Kim Elvis has met his maker – not Kim Il-sung, the other one, if he?she?it? exists). The message? In a nutshell: swallow this bitter pill, willya? In extenso: Okaaay guys, we just reached an agreement with the Evil Empire of the United Rogue States of America about our nuclear activities, but look: we just needed the suckers to send us some more bags of rice for you, because there’s only you in our lives – “Army first”, remember? And to make sure we want to follow your “Juche Line”**, we’ll make both the “Sunshine Line” and the “Beijing Line” angry by shooting our rocket (oops, ‘launching our satellite’) toward the East China Sea – heck, while we’re at it, we could even crash Taiwan’s party as well…

… Where was I?

In Gwonnong-dong, of course. This very morning. At the top floor of GCS International Building, enjoying a glorious view on Changdeokgung (to my left), and Jongmyo (to my right). What better location for a seminar on North Korean nukes than the headquarters of a peace-oriented NGO (GCS), with a view on two key symbols of power in ‘Chosun’ times: in peace and harmony on one side, with the deceased on the other…

With so much at stake, we have no choice but to try and be cautiously optimistic. And to keep humor alive. As Woody Allen put it during his intensive training of Kim Jong-un: “More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly“.

Among today’s panelists, John E. ENDICOTT (President, Woosong University) was the closest to experience a near-death ‘Dr Strangelove’ situation: this US Air Force veteran told us how, at the peak of the Cuban missile crisis, he ended up in a bunker with the top brass announcing that doom was likely to be ignited in 20 minutes…

In these really tricky times, I’m looking forward to Obama’s visit of the DMZ, a potential ‘jeoneun Hanguk saram imnida’ / ‘Mr Kim, tear down that wall’ moment. Not a game changer, but a simple message: the time of reconciliation will eventually come, and the sooner the better, but it takes a dialog between both Korean halves, starting right now.

Last year, South Korea was reconsidering its own tough-cop approach, which proved rather counter-productive… except maybe from the Chinese point of view (see “Re-engaging North Korea – A Four Party Talk“). Today, our panelists were more interested in how far the North was ready to engage in collaboration.

Hosted by GCS International, this Asia Institute Seminar focused on “Revisiting Nuclear Safety and Nuclear Security in North Korea”***. Hard to expect full collaboration and transparency from the most secretive country on the touchiest of materials, with a nuclear industry globally in damage control mode ever since the tsunami hit the fan in Fukushima, and days after South Korea unveiled an embarrassing cover-up following an incident in its own nuclear facilities (see “Twelve Minutes in Bballi-Bballiland“). And Sharon SQUASSONI, an expert in proliferation prevention who’s visited the North several times, thinks that North Koreans themselves may be a bit too confident about how much they know about their own level of security.

You’d think the collaboration between Japan and its neighbors would have improved after last year’s fiasco but it turns out that no, little or no progress has been made, and communication is already poor within an archipelago technically cut in two (electricity itself cannot circulate between West – 60 Hz – and East – 50 Hz!), and where private operators are not compelled to disclose key indicators as is the case in the US. If even close and friendly neighbors don’t trust each other, no wonder the general public show doubt and defiance toward governments and the nuclear industry in general. Former Minister of the Environment KIM Myung-ja stressed the power of activists and the need for transparency.

After the Daiichi mess, daily measurements of radioactivity from the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety brought much needed clarity to the debate and today, I welcomed the precious insights from their principal researcher: a technical expert with a sound approach of the human and cultural factors, Dr KIM Sok-chul underlined the differences between security and safety, or between the perception of events, their comprehension, and their prevention. He also revealed that the risk of human errors was maximal with knowledge based behaviors (compared to ruled based or skilled based systems). The same could be said about finance and neural scoring systems but enough scary stories for today.

Actually, this very gloomy period could prove rich in opportunities. Instead of the usual blame game and finger pointing at one rogue state, both Koreas, China, and Japan could humbly seat at the same table with a simple task: we’re all in this together, as neighbors and fellow (at least) civil nuclear powers, and we are all facing criticisms for various reasons. Let’s share about it, and find ways to be more efficient for the next emergency. To make it simpler, let’s keep Russia and the US out of this***. We won’t judge each other, just make sure we handle things better than last year. Maybe, as trust and confidence grows, we’ll share more information, but let’s start this with modest yet vital objectives.

Since the audience was rather small, everybody could chime in, so I suggested this sort of a NEAR (North East Asia Response) task force. Earlier, Scott SNYDER, who deplored the US failure to prevent vertical proliferation, had proposed a more direct offer to North Korea: you want to launch a satellite? Great: we can do it for you, and safely. Of course they’ll refuse (it’s all about controlling the propeller, and not for satellites), but bringing the discussions to new planes may work better than – say – Sergey Labrov’s basic reset button.

 Original posting

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