DPRK Nuclear Safety: China’s Paramount Concern on the Frontier?

By | January 14, 2012 | No Comments

Chico Harlan, the Washington Post correspondent in Seoul, spent some time this past November in a “nuclear ghost town” on the northeast coast of Japan. (A narrated video of his journey is available here, well worth the short advertisment that precedes it.)  On January 6, Harlan reported on how rumors in Seoul of a North Korean nuclear accident sent the stock market in that city plummeting. The juxtapositions of these two experiences of a single person — the wandering about near Fukushima, and then standing in Seoul, presumably imagining how it, too, could be abandoned to radiation — set the tone for today’s essay, the second in a series by Sino-NK’s Border Security Analyst.  — Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

The DPRK’s Nuclear Safety Should be China’s Paramount Concern on the Frontier 

by Jende Huang

The tremors felt by the Chinese in the wake of the DPRK’s May 2009 underground nuclear test were not limited to the diplomatic or political realms. In Yanji, the capital of the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Jilin Province, press reports stated that a magnitude 4.5 earthquake could be felt by residents in Yanbian City, sending school children fleeing into the streets.

Via Danwei.org — Click image for the 2009 narrative

Though Beijing may publicly tolerate a North Korean nuclear weapons program, are they prepared for the literal fallout from such a program in the event of further tests, or, as this essay will consider, a nuclear accident?

When selecting nuclear sites, the DPRK possesses about 120,000 square kilometers – an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania — of land from which to choose. The test location for the DPRK’s previous two nuclear explosions sits relatively close to the PRC: less than 200 kilometers from Yanbian, and approximately 75 kilometers east of Changbai, the PRC border town just across the Yalu River from Hyesan, a city better known as a source of refugees and illegal activities. With a recent statement by North Korea’s Central News Agency that “the DPRK is a full-fledged nuclear weapons state and its nuclear deterrent is the revolutionary heritage which can never be bartered for anything,” it appears that rapprochement with the international community regarding nuclear weapons is unlikely in the short term, and the ascension of Kim Jong-Eun has, if anything, made the bartering away of nuclear weapons less likely.

Recent indications that the DPRK might be willing to talk to the United States in return for food aid are not, of course, ipso facto proof that the North Korean nuclear program is about to be mothballed.

A North Korean Fukushima?  |  The Yongbyon nuclear complex, described in grey and desolate tones by previous visitor Mike Chinoy in Meltdown, is a little more than 100 km from the Chinese border.  Considering the nuclear plant’s distance from the approximately 109 million people living in Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, the three northeastern Chinese provinces bordering the DPRK, it seems unlikely that the leaders in Beijing have never considered the possible impacts of a North Korean version of Fukushima or Chernobyl.

But what about other potential nuclear sites that may be in operation? In 2010, when speaking to the IAEA of the likelihood of the DPRK having pursued uranium enrichment activities prior to April 2009, U.S. Ambassador Glyn T. Davies stated if that were the case, “there is a clear likelihood that DPRK has built other uranium enrichment-related facilities in its territory.” China may or may not have inside knowledge of other nuclear facilities in the DPRK, but it is highly unlikely that they are impervious to the intelligence and the private and public prodding by US envoys to Beijing and Pyongyang.

The location of any such facilities should be of major interest to the Chinese leadership, as should the safety culture in the DPRK.  As Adam Cathcart pointed out in April 2011, Chinese Central TV was running reports of rumored nuclear contamination from Yongbyon, then suddenly pulled them off the air when the North Koreans indicated that Kim Jong Il would come to China, possibly with his son, the following month. Nevertheless it was an extraordinary step from Beijing that indicated overtly a lack of trust in the DPRK to secure its own nuclear facilities from leaks and accidents.

Toward Sino-North Korean Nuclear Safety | It would be incumbent on the Chinese to take the prosaic step of offering to send nuclear safety specialists to provide what assistance they can, or at least to serve as mentors for North Korean safety specialists. David von Hippel and Peter Hayes, in a 2010 Nautilus Institute report, have suggested that the international community should assist in creating a LWR safety culture. A direct appeal from the Chinese, though, may be better received in Pyongyang, even if it is kept secret from the international community. This type of assistance is not a reward to the DPRK for their nuclear ambitions, but instead is an acknowledgement of the realities of a safety culture that has been judged to be lacking.

A North Korea with nuclear weapons remains a serious issue for the international community to address.  However, a North Korea with safety lapses at nuclear facilities could turn into an unmitigated disaster for the Korean peninsula and indeed, the whole Northeast Asia region, if the DPRK suffered a full-blown nuclear accident. North Korea’s lack of infrastructure, its slow response to previous natural disasters (recall the great difficulty to move 5000 flood victims, even with Chinese assistance, in Sinuiju in 2010) and likely refusal of assistance from the international community would not bode well for the North Korean people, or any of the DPRK’s neighbors.[1]

Dangerous Transnationalism |  In addition to potentially unknown nuclear facilities, recent rumors concerning the potential deployment of a DPRK tactical nuclear weapons brigade to North Pyongan Province and a supposed explosion of a LWR in the North should help motivate the Chinese leadership (including those provincial and local leaders in the northeastern provinces) to ensure that any contingency plans previously developed are up-to-date, and hope that rumors of North Korean nuclear disasters stay as such.[2]  The city of Dandong appears to be a focal point for Chinese efforts with regard to the study of how to handle such threats.

As easily as radioactive materials can drift southward (such as the unexplained detection of xenon by the South Koreans in May 2010), the Chinese should be concerned every time the winds blow in from the southeast. Though the borderlands between the two nations are not, as far as we know, dotted with nuclear facilitates, the danger to both countries is ever-present. The far reaching consequences of a nuclear accident would take a serious human toll, as well as alter the diplomatic and political landscape in northeast Asia in ways that are difficult to anticipate.


Murphy, Jack, et al. 2011. Exploitation of the IMS and Other Data for a Comprehensive, Advanced Analysis of the North Korean Nuclear Tests.


National Bureau of Statistics of China. 2011. Communiqué of the National Bureau of Statistics of People’s Republic of China on Major Figures of the 2010 Population Census.


Von Hippel, David and Peter Hayes, Engaging the DPRK Enrichment and Small LWR Program: What Would it Take? Nautilus Institute Special Report. December 23, 2010. http://www.nautilus.org/publications/essays/napsnet/reports/vonHippelHayesLWR.pdf

[1] It is difficult to imagine the North Korean leadership giving the go ahead for large numbers of foreigners, even Chinese nominal allies, to swarm into one of the DPRK’s nuclear sites post-accident, monitoring radiation levels and assisting with cleanup. The Japanese government, the body with the most recent and detailed experience in these matters, would be unlikely to receive the DPRK’s invitation to help.

[2] On the PRC’s emergency planning systems in the Northeastern border region, the best study is Carla Freeman and Drew Thompson, “China on the Edge: China’s Border Provinces and Chinese Security Policy,” The Center for the National Interest and Johns Hopkins SAIS, April 2011 < http://www.cftni.org/China_on_the_Edge_April_2011.pdf>.

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