Editor's Note

North Korea has faced challenges in meeting its energy demands and has struggled with energy shortages for several decades. Addressing the lack of policy discussion on energy engagement with North Korea, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars highlights the need to find potential avenues for future energy cooperation that can reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. The authors provide insights into the history and present policy on nuclear energy safety that exist within the discussion of US-ROK-DPRK energy relations. Further, they stress the importance of US-ROK cooperation given that energy infrastructure resilience is high on both countries' presidential agendas.

Nuclear Energy on the Korean Peninsula: A Way towards the Future?


In the 21st century, amidst record-breaking environmental disasters—hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods—governments around the world are under increased pressure to address climate change, resilient infrastructure development, and sustainable energy needs. Increasingly, energy policy is one of the most critical areas of foreign policy and is a space of both contention and potential cooperation in global politics today.


Now is a critical time for U.S.-South Korean energy cooperation. Energy infrastructure resilience, across the spectrum of low-carbon energy, is high on both U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s national agendas. Never before have the two countries’ energy views been more aligned. Should the window for dialogue with North Korea re-open, the United States and South Korea may choose a form of limited engagement with the North.


Recent years have shown an undeniable—and highly concerning—expansion of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. This circumstance, however, should not rule out the discussion on humanitarian progress towards energy security and sustainability in North Korea. Driving progress towards substantial improvement in North Korea’s energy security could play a crucial role in transforming North Korea’s economy and developing peaceful relations with its regional neighbors and beyond.


Given Biden’s proactive push to re-position the United States as an active participant in the global effort to combat climate change, a South Korean engagement policy which includes carbon-free, renewable energy cooperation—as suggested in Yoon’s “Audacious Plan”—may be palatable to Washington. Given South Korea and the United States’ shared concern on nuclear safety and climate change, cooperation initiatives between the two Koreas on nuclear safety and carbon-free energy are two areas where the new South Korean administration and Washington could potentially see eye-to-eye on.


Nuclear Cooperation with North Korea


It is not an exaggeration to say that North Korea continues to present one of the largest and most threatening security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region. From increased missile tests to the North’s aggressive posturing and recent revisions to its nuclear doctrine, the question of how to deal with an apparently emboldened North Korean regime, remains difficult to answer. While the current stalemate with North Korea makes foreseeable diplomatic breakthrough unlikely, the future is yet uncertain. Inter-Korean engagement on energy policy, especially in coordination with the United States and alongside active agendas for denuclearization, remains a potential platform for policy engagement should the window of opportunity present itself.


If future discussions with North Korea are to be successful, the historical background of the previous U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) project may prove to be beneficial. In particular, U.S.-Soviet collaboration might serve as a model for North Korea and the U.S. to adopt a new nuclear cooperation plan. It is necessary to have dialogue and some level of international cooperation to realize the benefits of nuclear energy and avoid the worst impacts.


During the Cold War, U.S.-Soviet Union cooperation on nuclear threat reduction led to a series of foundational launching points for the building of today’s nonproliferation regime. Though the relations waxed and waned, Washington and Moscow’s efforts led to the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, efforts to mitigate risks from Soviet technology spillover to border regions gained rapid traction, receiving support from the U.S. executive and—importantly—bipartisan support in the legislative branch. Beyond Washington, one of the most successful proponents of nuclear cooperation was the relationship between nuclear laboratories in Russia and the United States, which within the political context offered a route toward positive and productive joint-scientific engagement.


Today, U.S.-Russian relations have progressively soured, with opportunities towards cooperation increasingly bleak. However, the history of the U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperative framework may yet offer lessons for the prospects of U.S. nuclear policy toward North Korea. The history of the U.S.-North Korea relationship, like that of the U.S.-Russia relationship, has seen both progress and stagnation. The United States and its allies actively engaged North Korea by signing the 1994 Agreed Framework and creating the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). During the six-party talks from 2007 to 2008, the United States profited from Pyongyang’s disablement of the nuclear reactor that produced plutonium for its weapons program. The stalemate in U.S.-North Korean relations and the eventual collapse of the KEDO initiative under the Agreed Framework have since undermined the reputation of U.S.-North Korea nuclear relations, but instances of cooperation, such as the six-party discussions and subsequent Trump-Kim summits should not be neglected.


Despite the diplomatic gridlock, the United States should create a communication channel with North Korea to reduce the danger of misunderstanding and miscalculation and seek an agreement to avert or respond to a nuclear emergency. However, if North Korea returns to the negotiation table, in exchange for disarmament, there should be a “Grand Bargain” that supports the transition of military deployment to a peaceful civilian nuclear program. Establishing a civilian nuclear program would provide opportunities for bilateral United States-North Korea interaction in the long-term, as well as help South Korea adopt a bilateral engagement policy toward North Korea, making North Korea even more dependent on Seoul and Washington. North Korea has previously expressed interest in participating in the energy sector and may do so again. The United States and South Korea must present sincere offers in order to reestablish cooperation.


Safeguarding Energy-Driven Engagement on the Korean Peninsula


Under the auspice of North Korea’s self-proclaimed nuclear power status, any energy cooperation agreements would rely on clear distinctions between engagements toward civilian nuclear use and distinctly away from continued weapons program development.


Often, the peaceful and military uses of nuclear power are inextricably linked. While nonproliferation policy places a premium on political security and external threat response as key drivers behind a country’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, national power is demonstratively rooted in economic, energy, and technological advancement. As such, global nonproliferation structures have often attempted to balance the domestic benefits of civilian nuclear programs and international risk of covert military weapon development. The United States and the international community have utilized two primary methods of promoting peaceful use of nuclear power: 1) by encouraging technical choices which reduce proliferation risks, and 2) by devising increasingly effective safeguard measures. As history has shown, only one of the two Koreas has been effective in limiting nuclear development for military use on the Korean Peninsula. In the instance of South Korea, the country has a rapidly expanding nuclear power sector but has no inventory of nuclear weapons. South Korea’s pursuit of nuclear power began in the context of the United States’’ “Atoms for Peace” program, which was seen as the most crucial component in the country’’s 1960s economic development. Korea relied on the United States for the development of most of its nuclear projects. This led to the signing of the INFCIR/66-type agreement, Korea’s first IAEA safety guard, by the United States, South Korea, and the IAEA in 1968.


Korea’s early nuclear technology exploration was deemed part of the country’s nuclear policy. However, in the 1970s, South Korea saw two incidents that rocked its nuclear strategy. The first was the 1971 decision by President Nixon to withdraw a large number of U.S. troops from South Korea, and the second was the Arab oil embargo in 1973. Both of these shocks prompted then-President Park Chung-hee to rethink South Korea’s security and energy reliance, and the country began to look for ways to reprocess spent nuclear material. At the same time, the United States became concerned about South Korea’s nuclear objectives and the likelihood of a break from the nuclear non-proliferation framework.


The United States’ strategic approach to preventing South Korea from developing nuclear weapons was to provide limited support for a nuclear program confined to a Light-Water Reactor (LWR) that is less susceptible to proliferation efforts while at the same time denying sensitive nuclear fuel cycling capabilities such as uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing. South Korea eventually yielded to international pressure by joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1975 and consenting to stronger IAEA safety procedures of the kind described in INFCIR/153. As a result, South Korea has seen significant domestic and worldwide nuclear energy growth while remaining a non-nuclear weapon state.


In contrast, North Korea, a self-proclaimed nuclear power with a burgeoning nuclear weapons program, is one of the world’s poorest and most energy-deprived countries. However, North Korea’s nuclear history began similarly to South Korea’s. In 1959, the Soviet Union established its own aid program for countries like North Korea, similar to the United States "Atoms for Peace" approach. However, Soviet aid to North Korea was generally cut off in the 1960s, beginning and ending with modest research reactors. Consequently, North Korea elected to pursue its own program in the 1980s, prompting a response from the Soviet Union and an agreement to supply a VVER-type reactor to North Korea. Possibly in exchange, North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 but delayed agreeing to the required INFCIR/153-type safeguards until 1992.


While the United States utilized strategies to encourage relatively proliferation-resistant technical choices and increasingly effective safeguard agreements to influence South Korea’s nuclear agenda, this was not the case for North Korea. Despite the fact that the relationship between South Korea and its superpower supporter, the United States, has sometimes been strained, South Korea has been able to fulfill the majority of its energy and security demands within the framework provided by the U.S. North Korea, on the other hand, had significantly less backing from its nuclear sponsors, and even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it began its own route toward constructing its own nuclear program.


Looking towards future engagement with North Korea, the challenges for nuclear nonproliferation are less likely to depend on technical considerations but rather will hinge on the form of political arrangements. All future activities will be guided by whether they yield realistic diplomatic outcomes acceptable to all key parties, including North Korea and the United States, as well as China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan. Today’s IAEA safeguard regime offers a variety of case-in-point examples of country-specific strategies. The only question is how the United States and South Korea will work together to handle the North Korean crisis.


Nuclear Energy in North Korea: Benefits, Risks, and Possibilities


A cooperation initiative among the United States, South Korea, and North Korea could provide a renewed opportunity for technology diplomacy among the three countries, such as attempted during the 1990s-2000s Korean Peninsula Energy Development (KEDO) project. In tandem with a U.S.-led denuclearization effort, energy cooperation towards the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy, could provide a diplomatic acknowledgment of humanitarian support for North Korea, one of the poorest energy producing countries in the world.


North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have certainly grown dramatically since the 1990s. Since the signing of the 1994 Agreed Framework, which initiated the original joint nuclear energy project in North Korea in exchange for a “nuclear freeze” on the country’s nuclear weapons program, North Korea’s infrastructure, technical know-how, and human capacity in the nuclear field have improved significantly. It is necessary to devise a path toward confidence-building leading to denuclearization of North Korea with the dismantling, conversion, and decontamination of North Korean nuclear facilities. Such processes may include parallel initiatives for realizing peaceful use of nuclear energy in North Korea supporting the country’s future industrial and economic development.


Several benefits exist for U.S. and inter-Korean nuclear energy cooperation, though the most important would be the long-term and sustained diplomatic relations needed to support technical cooperation. Nuclear projects need significant initial expenditures, have lengthy building timeframes, and require ongoing international assistance for power plant operations. So long as North Korea commits to disarmament, the nuclear energy development program will allow the United States and South Korea to establish long-term diplomatic and economic ties with the North.


Four potential stages for a cooperative nuclear energy expansion program in North Korea are 1) research and reactor development, 2) experimental light water reactor (ELWR) development, 3) small modular reactor (SMR) development, and 4) large light water reactor (LWR) development. Based on the assertion that North Korean denuclearization remains possible and realistic, the pursuit of energy cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and North Korea, would require a clear, well-defined framework for concurrent denuclearization and development of nuclear energy.


While opportunities for engagement exist, such cooperative energy policy and investment in North Korea’s domestic politics are not without risks. Not only is it physically impossible to locate and eliminate all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities, but there is also no assurance that North Korea will open up and remove all of its nuclear equipment. In this regard, developing the stages of sequential denuclearization is a critical component of this nuclear energy project. Progress in nuclear energy projects should be commensurate to denuclearization progress and the success and significance of respective processes achieved by the participating parties.


South Korea and the United States should leverage their respective strengths in nuclear technology, safety devices, and security to transform North Korea’s military nuclear facilities into civilian power plants in order to achieve the ultimate goal of a non-nuclear North Korea. To properly implement North Korea’s peaceful nuclear energy project, rigorous planning will be required to verify and decommission complex nuclear weapons facilities while also restoring the environment. Future trilateral nuclear energy cooperation between the two Koreas and the U.S. will necessitate substantial financial and political resources. If ties with North Korea can be restored, the United States and South Korea must collaborate to develop an effective and viable nuclear energy framework, as they did during the 1994–2006 KEDO effort.


Examining the Status of Nuclear Safety in North Korea and the Factors that Might Strengthen It


Whereas the debate over North Korea, especially in the West, has been predominantly confined to the discussion over its nuclear arsenal, its delivery system, and its ill-formed nuclear posture, much less has been discussed over the nuclear safety culture that ultimately rules over the management of an ever-extending nuclear infrastructure.


This thinking presents a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, the North Korean nuclear program is regarded as critical to the regime’s security and survival. On the other hand, North Korea’s internal safety standards are so low and rudimentary that whether or not an accident will occur is seen as a question of time rather than chance. Five key areas of risks are explored: 1) risk of reactor overheating due to cooling system malfunctions, 2) environmental damages and contamination leakages, 3) primitive regulatory infrastructure and continued isolation for international technical expertise, 4) potential of flawed reactor safety design and inadequate construction quality, and 5) hazards related to plutonium reprocessing and general management of nuclear waste.


Despite these risks, North Korea’s attitude towards nuclear safety may present promising ground for improvement. In particular, four key drivers which may serve as strong incentives for the North Korean regime to take actions are 1) moving forward, nuclear energy may be vital in mitigating North Korea’s catastrophic domestic energy insecurity, 2) failure to prevent a nuclear disaster in North Korea would have damaging consequences for the North Korean regime’s legitimacy and credibility; 3) though limited, historical precedence—in particular, the critical legacy of KEDO—exists for North Korean cooperation on nuclear safety, and the risk of transnational spillover into China, during a nuclear accident, may further incentivize North Korea’s pre-emptive cautionary action on nuclear safety.


While reviving cooperation with North Korea on nuclear safety issues is not unthinkable, safety cooperation alone will not guarantee deeper cooperation on North Korean denuclearization and disarmament. Nuclear safety, though important, should be not be traded for nuclear disarmament concessions.


Despite this critical dilemma, the international community should work to avoid any nuclear accidents at all costs in any part of the world. Preventing nuclear accidents is fundamentally a global responsibility. Importantly, the history of U.S. and South Korean engagement with North Korea tells us that cooperation is possible, though, short-lived. While future engagement with North Korea remains unclear and uncertain, successful nuclear cooperation has historically occurred amid tremendous challenges. Should a window open for dialogue on greater safety on the Korean Peninsula, the United States and South Korea may choose to engage North Korea under a framework for nuclear safety, within the larger context of denuclearization.


South Korea’s Nuclear Safety Collaboration


Regardless of whether the peaceful use of nuclear power is used as an alternative means to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, as once attempted by the KEDO Light-Water Reactor (LWR) project of the 1990s, or whether nuclear safety itself is the focal point following the alleviation of international tensions, the nuclear safety capacity, management, and implementation of North Korea should be considered. Nuclear safety is a common global concern to be addressed through global normative and cooperative frameworks. While the future ahead is unclear, nuclear safety should be overlooked in potential inter-Korean engagement.


South Korea not only holds consistent policies and ample experience in nuclear power production but also nuclear safety regulation. Since the conception of South Korea’s nuclear power pursuit, South Korea has set up a comprehensive regulatory infrastructure for nuclear safety—through a collection of legal and institutional mechanisms—which has continuously evolved the competency through feedback from increased regulatory demands and international and domestic movements on nuclear safety.


North Korea’s energy infrastructure, on the other hand, is severely underdeveloped, and despite the presence of the North’s National Nuclear Safety Regulatory Commission (SNSRC), it is questionable if the North has established a comprehensive nuclear safety system. If the chance arises, North Korea may choose to restart its nuclear energy ambitions.


Lessons from the KEDO LWR project are an invaluable legacy for future discussions on nuclear safety engagement on the Korean Peninsula. With the launch of the Geneva Agreed Framework in October 1994, the newly initiated LWR project necessitated the creation of a multinational organization and the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization was founded in March 1995. From the very beginning, South Korea’s Institute for Nuclear Safety (KINS) served a crucial role. From conducting a 14-month safety review of the LWR nuclear power plant construction stage to hosting safety trainings for North Korean nuclear scientist, KINS was instrumental in working alongside KEDO’s Nuclear Safety Confirmation System (NSCS) for the analysis, observation, and recommendations on nuclear safety during the project. Though early progress between North and South Korean nuclear regulators, political tensions between the Koreas delay engagement and, most likely, reduced interest from the North Korean side. A reminder that inter-Korean safety engagement hinges on the viability of the political environment.


Bearing in mind the lessons of the past, strategies for achieving cooperation for building North Korea’s safety capacity should be effective and efficient. In this process, South Korea can take a leading role. The ultimate goal of inter-Korean engagement for nuclear safety would be to establish a collaborative framework on the Korean Peninsula. In reality, however, without a major shift in thinking, it is difficult to expect inter-Korean engagement for nuclear safety beyond the North Korean nuclear weapon issue and within the current global sanctions regime. Although it should be cautiously enacted, such engagement could be considered as a subject of an inter-Korean engagement or international cooperation of North Korea apart from the international situation.


Looking Forward: U.S.-South Korean Energy Cooperation


Now is a pivotal time for U.S.-South Korean energy cooperation. Energy infrastructure resilience, across the spectrum of low-carbon energy, is high on both U.S. and South Korean presidential agendas—Never before have the two countries energy views been more aligned.


North Korea, however, has not made engagement policy easy for either the Biden or Yoon administrations. The North’s escalatory saber-rattling has reached unprecedented levels, raising concerns in both Washington and Seoul. It is often the case, however, that periods of high tension with North Korea resolve into opportunities for engagement. Though the cyclical nature of diplomacy with North Korea invites cynicism, it also suggests a future window may open. North Korea’s brinkmanship diplomacy is just that, to the brink but—as of yet—not further.


Should the window for dialogue with North Korea re-open, the United States and South Korea may choose a form of limited engagement with the North. Both countries will need to formulate a framework for the proactive reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Trends in both U.S. and South Korean foreign relations and energy policy signify shared concerns about nuclear safety and climate change. A cooperative energy initiative between the two Koreas, in particular in tandem with U.S. policy on denuclearization, may be desirable to all parties.


While the future is unknown, one point holds true: U.S.-South Korean cooperation will be vital. Washington and Seoul will need to work together to address the future of global nuclear energy and safety, avoiding meltdowns and blackouts on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. For North Korea’s future role in nuclear energy and safety, it is crucial that the United States and South Korea cooperate closely together. Through bilateral collaboration, the two nations will be able to capitalize on their respective strengths in nuclear technology, safety devices, and security to achieve their shared objective of denuclearizing North Korea and transforming its military nuclear program into a civilian program.



Francesca Giovannini is the Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs. In addition, she is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she designs and teaches graduate courses on global nuclear policies and emerging technologies. Previously, Dr. Giovannini served as Strategy and Policy Officer to the Executive Secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), based in Vienna. In that capacity, she oversaw the promotion of CTBT ratification as a confidence-building mechanism in regional and bilateral nuclear negotiations, elevating the profile of the CTBT in academic circles and promoting the recruitment of female scientists from the Global South. With a Doctorate from the University of Oxford, U.K. and two Masters from the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Giovannini began her career working for international organizations and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Ho Kee Kim is a professor of International Nuclear Safety School (INSS) of Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety (KINS). He worked for safety reviews of nuclear power plants, including during the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization’s (KEDO) light water reactor (LWR) project in North Korea, as a manager and director at KINS. He has also served as a senior safety officer at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). During the KEDO LWR project, he developed KINS cooperation framework within KEDO, and led safety confirmation for the construction stage of the LWR plants and orientation for the North Korean regulatory staff. His career has also included research and development of policies for nuclear safety regulation, and international support activities for nuclear safety capacity-building within countries in Asia, Arab and Africa. During his career, he has assisted in development and operation of the Avoiding Meltdowns and blackouts: Confidence-Building in inter-Korean engagement on nuclear safety and energy development cooperation mechanisms between KINS with the IAEA and those regional nuclear safety networks, such as the Asian Nuclear Safety Network (ANSN), Arab Network of Nuclear Regulators (ANNuR) and Forum of Nuclear Regulatory Bodies in Africa (FNRBA), working towards the IAEA’s Global Nuclear Safety and Security Framework. He received a M.S. in Nuclear Engineering at KAIST, and an MBA and a .BA. in Mechanical Engineering at the Busan National University.


Siegfried S. Hecker is a Professor of the Practice in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at Texas A&M University and Faculty Fellow in The Center for Nuclear Security Science and Policy Initiatives (NSSPI). He is also Distinguished Professor of the Practice and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey. Dr. Hecker is Professor Emeritus at Stanford University and Director Emeritus at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. From 1970 to 1973 he was a senior research metallurgist at the General Motors Research Laboratories. He served as Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 through 1997, and then Senior Fellow of the laboratory until 2005. In 2005 and 2006, he was visiting professor at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), and later joined the faculty of the Department of Management Science and Engineering as Professor (Research) and as Senior Fellow at CISAC. He was co-director of CISAC from 2007 to 2012 and retired from Stanford in August 2022. He has worked extensively with the Russian and Chinese nuclear laboratories to enhance safety and security of their nuclear assets. Dr. Hecker is the editor of Doomed to Cooperate (2016), two volumes documenting the history of Russian-U.S. laboratory- to-laboratory cooperation on nuclear security since 1992. Dr. Hecker received his B.S. in metallurgy in 1965 and M.S. in metallurgy in 1967 from Case Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in metallurgy in 1968 from Case Western Reserve University.


Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). Before coming to CNS, he was the Director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation. Prior to that, he was Executive Director of the Managing the Atom Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Executive Director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a Desk Officer in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. He is the author of Minimum Means of Reprisal: China’s Search for Security in the Nuclear Age (MIT Press, 2007), and Paper Tigers: China’s Nuclear Posture (IISS, 2014). He is the founder of ArmsControl MOU-IFES Grant Funding in 2022 for Policy and Academic Research Projects on North Korea and Unification Wonk.com, the leading blog and podcast on disarmament, arms control and nonproliferation. He earned his Ph.D. in Policy Studies (International Security and Economic Policy) at the University of Maryland and his B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science at Augustana College.


Man-sung Yim is a Professor in the Department of Nuclear and Quantum Engineering at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), where he has taught courses on nuclear risk management, nuclear waste policy, and radiation biology since 2011. He has also acted as Director of the Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC) at KAIST since 2014. He is a current member of the Scientific Program Committee at the Complete Test Ban Treaty Organization and an editor at the Journal for Peace and Nuclear Disarmament. He has consulted the Korean Navy, the Korea Energy Economic Institute, and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, among others. He is also a member of the Korean Nuclear Policy Society, the Korean Radioactive Waste Management Society, and the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management. He is the co-author of The Energy Behind: Power that Moves the World (MID Publisher, 2018). He obtained a Ph.D. in Nuclear Engineering at the University Cincinnati and a Sc.D and S.M. in Environmental Health Science at Harvard University. He earned his M.S. and B.S. in Nuclear Engineering at Seoul National University.



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