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First, cooperate on nuclear safety in the Korean Peninsula

First, cooperate on nuclear safety in the Korean Peninsula
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Last month in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their third summit in less than a year, concluding with agreements that ranged from security issues to the economy, and even a pledge to make a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics. Yet, despite positive assessments of the summit’s outcome by Presidents Trump and Moon, many observers remain skeptical about real progress because of the conspicuous lack of a concrete statement by North Korea for denuclearization.

Absent since the restart of dialogue with North Korea is any discussion on inter-Korean nuclear safety cooperation, despite concerns over possible safety risks at the North Korean nuclear complex. Inattention to the facility could have dire consequences for the peninsula: radioactive fallout does not recognize borders.

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For example, because of its inability to acquire civil nuclear technology from abroad, North Korea might try to develop its own power reactor from a variation of outdated Soviet designs such as the RBMK-1000 type that resulted in the most catastrophic man-made disaster in history, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. On the other hand, the possible dismantlement of nuclear facilities such as the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, which contains hazardous material and radioactive elements, could contaminate the surrounding environment and expose North Korean workers if there is improper clean-up.

In addition, as the operator of several fuel cycle facilities, North Korean leaders and experts no doubt would be interested in learning more about Japan’s costly lessons with nuclear safety. Despite having sophisticated industrial capability and arguably high nuclear safety standards, Japan has experienced deadly accidents in fuel cycle facilities — most notably the accident at a fuel fabrication plant in Tokaimura in September 1999, when the mishandling of enriched uranium led to the death of two workers from acute radiation exposure, and permanent injury of another. The accident, attributed to poor safety culture and inadequate regulatory oversight, exposed 436 people to radiation.

Without strict safety practices and adequate protection, North Korea might experience a similar scenario. Furthermore, the country has issues related to emergency response and communication in the event of a nuclear accident because of the secretive nature of its nuclear program. In particular, because North Korea terminated all cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2009, it would be difficult for outsiders to learn about any incident and provide support, if necessary. It is equally difficult for North Koreans to improve their safety culture and standards without an adequate, transparent working environment.

Why make nuclear safety an early priority in the high-level diplomatic process with North Korea? The number, pervasiveness and close-to-the-border locations of nuclear facilitates in North Korea are reasons enough. The significant role of nuclear energy in electricity generation in South Korea, where 24 nuclear power units contribute almost 30 percent of the electricity production, means South Korean experts would have much to share.

Indeed, South Korea has had to overcome its own safety problems, such as the cover-up of a plant blackout at the Kori-1 nuclear power unit in 2012, and the revelation of falsified test results for safety-grade equipment in the same year. Scientists and engineers from these two countries should be enabled to cooperate on nuclear safety by sharing information about their safety practices.

Besides, communication platforms have existed for this kind of engineering diplomacy. Striving for the middle-power status in the region, South Korea has proposed several initiatives aimed at regional integration among Northeast Asian countries; thus, the issue of nuclear safety in North Korea would be a perfect opportunity for Moon to promote a nuclear safety initiative for bilateral cooperation of nuclear safety professionals from the two Koreas. Cooperation on nuclear safety is a worthy, mutually beneficial and genuinely humanitarian effort, and South Korea should actively encourage it by providing strong material, technical and moral support.

Track-II on nuclear safety in North Korea also would help regional countries to decouple that urgent issue from the strategic, but politically-mired, denuclearization issues. Given the proximity between the North Korea-China border and suspected nuclear facilities, it would be beneficial for China to support such dialogue, because any serious accident at one of these facilities likely would mean radioactive fallout in China.

The format of an expert dialogue on nuclear safety also would provide the United States a reason for its tacit approval of such events, given their informality that is similar to numerous track-II events between American and North Korean experts throughout the years. In addition to helping to protect the region from safety risks related to North Korea’s nuclear complex, “engineering diplomacy” through cooperation on nuclear safety is inherently about building confidence — something that has been in short supply in discussions related to North Korea, and will be essential for reaching any agreements.

Viet Phuong Nguyen and Najmedin Meshkati are research fellows with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Meshkati also is a professor of engineering and international relations at the University of Southern California.