The future of the 5 MWe reactor became an important subject for unofficial contacts between the North Koreans, myself and other Americans. For example, during a Track II meeting in Pyongyang in November 2010, senior North Korean Foreign Ministry officials made it very clear that they were willing to relinquish thousands of fuel rods in their possession that could have been used by the reactor, rods that could help produce as many as eight nuclear bombs. That would have been a first step toward permanently disabling the facility, making sure the reactor would never again be a threat. Of course, the North Koreans wanted compensation -- standard practice in the international nuclear fuel industry -- and they wanted more than the rods were worth. But that was clearly their opening position. The offer was repeated during meetings in March 2011 in Berlin and once again in Pyongyang at the end of that year.
Each time, the North Korean proposal was dutifully reported to the Obama administration in briefings for the White House, the State Department, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. The Lee Myung-bak administration was familiar with the offer, as they would have been intimately involved in any effort to shut Yongbyon down because Lee's predecessor had been willing to pay for the rods to take them off North Korea's hands.
The North Korean initiative was duly noted, but the United States and South Korea failed to take advantage of the opportunity to ensure that North Korea wasn't able to restart the reactor and turn the rods into new nuclear bombs. Some U.S. officials felt it wasn't worth the effort since the reactor was old and probably useless. Others believed that Washington should focus entirely on stopping Pyongyang's much more threatening program to enrich uranium, unveiled in late 2010, rather than putting the final nail in the coffin of the plutonium production program. Still others, infected by the Obama administration's policy of "strategic patience," did not want to do much of anything before the North demonstrated its willingness to reform and end its bad behavior. By August 2012, when another unofficial meeting was held in Singapore, the North Koreans' position had shifted. It was clear that Washington and Seoul were going to be in for tough times after their respective presidential elections at the end of the year.
According to an estimate by Siegfried Hecker, the former head of the Los Alamos Weapons lab now at Stanford University, the North Koreans may need as little as six months to restart the reactor. Unless they are willing to operate at very low power levels, reducing the output of plutonium, they will need to rebuild the cooling tower or put in place some sort of alternative cooling system. That might take six months. Another important job will be to modify some of the thousands of fuel rods either meant for another reactor or complete unfinished rods so that they can be used by the 5 MWe system. That task also may take six months from start to finish. Both of these tasks can be done concurrently.
The missed opportunity to stop the restart of the 5 MWe reactor and make sure Pyongyang has eight fewer nuclear weapons is now water under the bridge. More importantly, if the North Koreans make good on their threat, it's one more sign, if we need it, that Pyongyang is moving full-steam ahead with becoming a small nuclear power. How many nuclear weapons they will eventually produce is anyone's guess. But one thing should be clear by now: The Obama administration's policy toward North Korea has failed.