North Korea and Nuclear Agreements

I tend to become bafflingly parochial over the summer months. It's the short part of the year where I can unwind and try to forget about what I read, discuss, and write about for the rest of the year. I have been following a story for some time, though, and it's angered me to the point where I feel that I have to break out of my shell and write some comments on it.

In the past years, there have been legitimate concerns about the possibility that North Korea might be trying to develop nuclear weapons capabilities. Talks between various nations and North Korea have seen very little progress. North Korea has typically wanted more aid money in return for them shutting down their nuclear power plants. Yesterday, North Korea finally shut down its Yongbyon nuclear power plant due to an agreement that was reached. The agreement stipulates that North Korea will be provided with heavy fuel oil from Russia and other nations. Of course, this benefits the oil industries in the allied nations, but I won't go to the extent of suggesting that there is a mass industry-related conspiracy going on here (although stranger things have happened in the past when it comes to US-led agreements of the sort). The agreement does, however, seem to be politically charged, and environmentally unsound. In the end, over a million tonnes of heavy fuel oil will be given to North Korea instead of them continuing the operation of their already-built nuclear plants. The reactors in place in North Korea are of the heavy water type (somewhat similar to the CANDU-type reactors which we use here in Canada). These reactors are generally considered to be safe, and they also have a lower potential of uranium enrichment which could be used for the production of nuclear weapons. And yet, the North is now in discussions to have a light water reactor built in the country instead, which seems to be a foolish decision that would have to be politically-charged.

But what of the threat of nuclear weapons? Of course, North Korea is the greatest threat currently to the south Asian countries, but are they really that much of a threat? The country's economy is in shambles, and they are in dire need of aid. Poverty is rampant outside of the major cities, and even in the major cities. They are essentially still an agrarian-based society with a limited manufacturing industry that is, for obvious reasons, subsistence-only. We can be reasonably certain that North Korea tested a nuclear device of some sorts not long ago, but the test was a failure. We also know that even if they did produce a successful weapon, they would only be able to launch it by plane, which could easily be tracked. North Korea does not possess a missile with enough payload capacity or range to be a threat to any neighbouring state.

And what if North Korea was lying? It is very probable that they would exaggerate their nuclear capacities in order to act as a deterrent to the United States and other countries. Their sovereignty depends on it. In doing so, they would also be able to receive the types of concessions that they really want and need -- namely, oil and other types of aid -- precisely what they are being given in exchange for the closing of their legitimate nuclear power stations. Dictator or no dictator, I feel that forcing North Korea to shut down nuclear plants is unsound. These plants do not have the capability to produce enough enriched uranium for any weapon of significance. Should they choose to pursue a uranium enrichment program, they could likely do so in a covert manner which wouldn't have anything to do with their power plants. Although it is doubtful, again, that they have the technological capabilities and expertise as of yet to produce a viable weapon. There is no doubt that they should be prevented from proliferating nuclear weapons, but I am doubtful of what sort of a threat North Korea in fact poses, as well as how effective this recent agreement will be. There was a similar agreement during the Clinton years in which they agreed to build a light water reactor in North Korea, but it ended up falling through. We could be seeing a repeat situation -- who knows?


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