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Of nukes and reunification

Aug 02,2017
Satellite photos of the Korean Peninsula at night tell its tragic story of division. The South is bright with splendid lights, while the North is dark except for Pyongyang. It is a rare sight that illustrates the current state of the Korean Peninsula.

The light-dark contrast is derived from the two countries’ diverging pursuit of nuclear power, between pursuit of peace and pursuit of weapons. Pyongyang chose the latter. Since the 1990s, North Korea has had to live with international sanctions. They do not have the money to buy oil or natural gas. They have been self-sufficient on electricity from hydropower and coal. Kim Jong-il even once said in 2000, “Those who produce using little or no electricity are patriots.”

North Korea’s nuclear armament is growing in size and variety. But North Korea cannot make a living out of it. A researcher who visited North Korea in the mid-2000s said that research could not be conducted because the electricity supply was not stable. South Korea on the other hand chose nuclear power as the engine for industrialization. We cannot discuss the lights in South Korea without mentioning nuclear power plants.

North Korea’s electricity shortage is its fundamental paradox. When the blood of industry is not circulating properly, the national economy cannot thrive. Since 1980, North Korea has been building power plants across the country at the behest of founding leader Kim Il Sung. In 1998, 5,000 small hydropower sites and wind farms were built. The New Year’s address that year called electricity and coal the “lifeline of economy for the people.”

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s message still highlights the importance of electricity, using different expressions and phrases. The difference is that he encourages natural energy development. But small and medium-sized power plants and natural energy are not enough to be industrial power sources.

It is not a coincidence that North Korea has turned to nuclear power. North Korea’s obsession with light water reactors goes way back. In the mid-1980s, Kim Il Sung wished to bring in a Soviet light water reactor but failed. In return for freezing nuclear activities through the Agreed Framework in 1994, North Korea was guaranteed two light water reactors. But in 2003, the United States suspended construction of a reactor in Sinpo in northeastern North Korea after it discovered that highly enriched uranium was being developed there. On the one hand, North Korea has nuclear weapons, and on the other, the international community will not give the country peaceful nuclear power.

Now, North Korea has nearly completed a 25 to 30 megawatt test reactor in Yongbyon, a project that began in 2010. It is equipped with cooling facilities and transformers. However, there is no guarantee that North Korea will be able to independently operate the reactor. After all, the barrier for nuclear energy is high.

North Korea might be surprised to hear that South Korea is phasing out nuclear power. In the long term, we need to consider how to deal with electricity shortage in the North in the event of reunification. South Korea’s energy supply could be a way to induce North Korea’s denuclearization, and that is possible when the South has strong capacity for nuclear power. We should be wary of divisive thinking about energy.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 1, Page 30

*The author is the Tokyo correspondent for the JoongAng Ilbo.

OH YOUNG-HWAN