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The other North Korea nuclear threat we should be worried about

  • North Korea's questionable nuclear safety standards and its isolation from the global scientific community increase the risk of a nuclear accident, according to 38North
  • The country's leader Kim Jong Un was caught on tape smoking a cigarette next to an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this year
  • If a nuclear disaster does occur, it would likely cause regional panic

The risk of a North Korean nuclear meltdown can't be ignored, according to a recent note published on 38North, a project of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Longstanding doubts over the hermit kingdom's nuclear safety resurfaced in July, when a video emerged of leader Kim Jong Un smoking a cigarette next to a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile.

"Kim's recklessness is certainly notable, and it hints at an under-emphasized and potentially devastating possibility: the threat of a nuclear accident in North Korea," said the 38North note, released late last week.

Adding to the concern, Chinese researchers said in September that North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site was at risk of imploding. That was followed by TV Asahi's October report of a tunnel collapse at the same nuclear site, an incident believed to have killed more than 200 people. Pyongyang, in response, called the report false and dismissed it as misinformation.

The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the North's major nuclear facility, is so densely concentrated that one fire could lead to a disaster potentially worse than Chernobyl, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye claimed in 2014.

Known as the worst nuclear disaster in history, a 1986 explosion at a nuclear reactor inside Ukraine's Chernobyl nuclear plant spewed tons of radioactive material into the air and resulted in thousands of deaths linked to radiation exposure and cancer.

"While [Park's'] damage assessment is likely an exaggeration — researchers from 38 North assess Chernobyl's power output to have been 3,000 percent greater than Yongbyon — the potential for a nuclear accident is not," the note said.

The North has yet to witness a serious accident, but it's had a couple of close calls.

A previous 38North note revealed one episode in July 2013, when a 5 MWe plutonium production reactor was briefly shut down after a flood destroyed parts of the cooling systems. "If a flood cuts off the cooling water supply to the reactors before they can be shut down, a major safety problem could occur — this is exactly what prompted the series of nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima."

And should an accident occur, the rogue state's secretive nature could exacerbate the situation.

"Reliable information would be scarce, as the regime would certainly attempt to suppress any reporting on the extent of the damage. Regional panic would set in, and governments in South Korea, China and Japan would feel immense pressure to respond," the note said, adding that political panic would likely surpass the actual radiological exposure and environmental impact.

In Chernobyl's aftermath, many attributed the disaster to the fact that Soviet nuclear reactor operators never had an opportunity to learn from international peers — a similiar situation to North Korea.

The international community should propose nuclear safety talks with Kim's administration, a move that could result in productive discussions on the nation's nuclear program as well lead to greater regional dialogue, the note said.

Seeing as Pyongyang has declared itself a responsible nuclear state, emphasizing its pledges of no-first-use and non-proliferation, "a commitment to nuclear safety would go a long way towards publicly demonstrating its adherence to these principles," 38North said.