Is the international community ready if North Korea’s nuclear ambitions bring about environmental disaster?
Michael McGrady says the potential for serious release of radioactive materials at North Korea’s nuclear testing site is clear. Less clear is how the international community could, or should, react
Following the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous vote to strengthen economic sanctions against North Korea, the closed state’s environmental stability remains one of many serious unanswered questions.
Kim Jong-un’s government has said it would proceed with nuclear testing operations in spite of the new sanctions, leaving many looming concerns. For example, what would happen if nuclear testing persists and a major accident occurs, unleashing radionuclides and other radioactive materials into the surrounding environment? What would happen if the North’s nuclear testing site collapses due to the seismological by-products of a large-scale nuclear test?
Recently, North Korean specialists claimed to have successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb at the underground nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri. According to the US Geological Survey, the blast of the North’s successful test resulted in a 6.3 seismological event.
As countries quickly took to the condemnation bandwagon, some analysis declared that the Punggye-ri site couldn’t withstand any more large-scale nuclear testing on the levels of the September 3 test.
Wang Naiyan, former chair of the China Nuclear Society, immediately argued that the September 3 event presages a potential environmental disaster the international community would not be able to ignore.
There have been reports throughout the global media suggesting many abnormalities surrounding the testing site, showing an increased threat of cave-ins at the underground testing site. It will take many weeks to gauge radiation readings accurately, but some reports monitoring radiation levels in surrounding provinces indicate an increase.
Still, the North will progress with testing at the same site to spite international pressure. To compound matters, the Punggye-ri testing site has been the main site of all nuclear weapons testing during Kim Jong-un’s tenure as supreme leader. This ultimately is a ticking time bomb.
In my conversations with several experts on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the main sentiment was that nothing is set in stone regarding the international or domestic response. This is also the case for determining the response based on the severity of a potential environmental disaster tied to nuclear testing.
Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, told me the response to a small-scale incident would be manageable for North Korean authorities. Yet, the question remains as to what kind of response – domestic and/or international – a major incident would require.
“It is unlikely that North Korea would seek international help and the international community would likely be conflicted,” Stangarone said. “North Korea would likely be reluctant to accept UN help and be more comfortable accepting Russian and Chinese help, while Russia may be best equipped to deal with any radiation sickness and China would likely become a source of needed supplies.”
The elephant in the room is whether a call for United Nations support would be merited, or even accepted by the North. It is highly likely the North would downplay the effects of any incident and be reluctant to accept aid from UN member-states. The North’s government would, in particular, scoff at taking aid from South Korea or the United States.
An environmental disaster could also hit the North Korean economy hard. Though the region surrounding the testing site isn’t a major agricultural nexus, farming and ranching could be impacted, affecting prices through a drop in production. Another variable is that trade along the North Korea-China border would be affected, as traders from China could see elevated risks.
From the perspective of the United States, feelings of war and diplomacy are mixed; yet the variables, including the environmental ones, are too high to ignore. Thinking of solutions to liberalise the nation’s economy by opening markets and to negotiating the reform of the current dictatorship is needed. Ultimately, diplomacy should reign.
Michael McGrady is an independent journalist and libertarian political consultant