GWIKS Travel Grant Research: Kya Palomaki

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The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s). 

Hi, this is Kya Palomaki.  I am in the second year of my master’s at the Elliott School, where I am studying security policy.  In March 2017, I was selected to participate in a fellowship hosted by the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in partnership with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Education and Research Center (NEREC).  To support this endeavor, I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant from GWIKS.

I came to Korea with the intention to perform work for my upcoming capstone project.  I applied to the NEREC program because it promised to “train and nurture next-generation international leaders in nuclear nonproliferation.”  The program involved a month of lectures, plus field trips to Seoul, Gyeongju, China, and Japan to meet with policy and engineering experts.  We were to learn about nuclear engineering and nuclear security policy as well as nonproliferation, as well as participate in an academic conference and present my own research during a poster session.  My capstone groupmates and I all have interests in East Asia for several different reasons, and mine revolves around a vested interest in nuclear weapons.  I thought I could come to Korea and conduct my own research and interviews with the contacts we met with, as well as US government representatives in the region.  I also figured that I could choose a research topic that was aligned with my capstone topic.

Like most things in life, my plan did not turn out exactly as I envisioned.  A few weeks before the program, I was emailed with a pre-assigned research topic—my partner and I would be looking into the fledgling Polish nuclear power program.  I was disappointed since this topic was not even related to East Asia, which was my region of interest and the whole reason I was going in the first place!

Despite this initial setback, the fellowship ended up being a wonderful experience and I was still able to take back a lot of research for the capstone project.  During the lectures, I gained an engineering background in nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants, specifically on reactor types and the front-end and back-end nuclear fuel cycle.  Although I have taken classes at the Elliott School about nuclear security policy, the different types of nuclear reactors and their associated proliferation problems were new to me.  The focus here was centered on the problems that Korea faces regarding spent fuel management, but the US was discussed in depth as not only another country with an extremely high-tech  nuclear industry, but also as an example of a country with extremely stringent safety and security measures and one with creative ways to dispose of and reprocess spent fuel.  Since my capstone will be centered on a US policy problem, the lectures that went over this information was highly useful for me.  I also hope it will aid me in applying for future fellowships.  Namely, I will be applying this year for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) graduate fellowship, which gives preference to applicants with some engineering and science background.  Though I am by no means an expert, this program will give me an edge that I otherwise would never have gotten.

The meetings we had with different Korean government and think thank leaders were also extremely valuable to my capstone project.  We got to hear perspectives that we would not have gotten any other way, especially during our frank discussions with Korean policymakers.  Best of all, we were given the contact information of out presenters at the end and were encouraged to keep in touch and ask any other questions we might think of.  Having high-level Korean contacts that are happy to speak candidly will be an invaluable resource, and I look forward to nurturing these relationships.

We also spent a lot of time talking about Korean domestic politics and public opinion, as well as US-Korea, China-Korea, and Japan-Korea relations.  This was especially eye-opening for me.  For example, I knew that Korea and Japan do not have the friendliest relations, but I had no idea that the Korean public has a more favorable view of Kim Jong-un than it does of Shinzo Abe.  I also was surprised at the relatively blasé attitude Koreans have towards the North Korean threat.  While I was here, there were two North Korean missile tests and as of August 10th, North Korea is threatening a nuclear strike on Guam.  These kinds of statements concerned me a lot when I heard them back home, but over here the attitude is just business-as-usual.  I spoke with many Koreans about this apathetic attitude, from classmates to professors to government officials, and the impression I get is that hostility from North Korea is so common that they just don’t believe it is a serious threat.  People have told me that if they took a North Korean threat of war seriously every time, they would never leave their homes so they just choose to ignore it.  It’s a position I find very stoic and I am trying to do the same thing as I sit here and North Korea threatens war.

Although I was not initially excited about my research topic, I ended up finding the experience extremely valuable and informative.  I was assigned a partner, a nuclear engineer from Korea.  We looked into the reasons that Poland might want to seek nuclear power, and proliferation issues they might face.  The research project ended up being fascinating.  We learned that in some ways, nuclear power is the last resort Poland has in order to lower CO2 emissions while preventing undue Russian influence.  Poland gets the vast majority of its power resources from domestically mined coal, which represents the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  The EU leadership has frequently threatened to fine Poland for its noncompliance with EU emissions standards; one of the simplest and quickest ways that Poland could improve these emissions would be to decrease coal use and replace it with natural gas, which would necessarily be imported from Russia due to existing infrastructure and proximity.  The prospect of increasing its dependence on Russian energy is disturbing to political leaders in Poland, who resent the thought of becoming even more dependent on Russian energy.  In order to maintain an adequate baseline energy supply, appease the demands of EU leaders in Brussels, and maintain its own energy and, by extension, geopolitical independence, Poland’s best option is to introduce plans to build nuclear power plants.  Although the actual groundbreaking date and timeline have been continually pushed back, the mere announcement of its intentions to build a nuclear power plant have, for the moment, been enough to pacify EU leaders who are frustrated with Poland’s high carbon emissions.

We also looked into the idea of nuclear latency as an unstated reason, though a side benefit, of Poland seeking nuclear power.  Poland’s fears of a resurgent Russia and an impotent EU may have left it feeling insecure, that it may soon be the target of Russian aggression with no intervening assistance from the EU.  Poland may hope to use nuclear power to deter a Russian attack by signaling that it has the ability to join the ranks of nuclear armed states.  Indeed, if a conflict with Russia lasted for an extended period of time, a nuclear power-possessing Poland would be able to assemble a rudimentary nuclear arsenal in short order—this is the foundation of nuclear latency.  Poland has not expressed a desire to build its own nuclear weapons, although Defense Minister Tomasz Szatkowski has espoused an interest in storing US nuclear weapons within its borders to enhance its security.  The Ministry of Defense itself distanced itself from his comments the very next day, saying that his comments “should be seen in the context of recent remarks made by serious Western think tanks, which point to deficits in NATO’s nuclear deterrent capability on its eastern flank.”  Despite the contradiction, these statements show that Poland is acutely aware of the security threats and deterrence gaps it faces vis-à-vis Russia, and suggest that Poland might be looking for alternative ways to deter an emboldened Russia.  The deterrence capability may not have been the primary or the sole reason that the Polish government decided to switch to nuclear power, but the potential positive outcomes for Poland may be an added side benefit of seeking out the technology.

We concluded, then, that Poland’s complex security environment presents challenges to its fledgling nuclear program, and may be fueling Poland’s pursuit of a nuclear power program in the first place.  The myriad technical and geopolitical challenges encountered by Poland have the potential to lead to proliferation, either licitly or illicitly, and the international community should be aware of the reasons Poland might wish to proliferate and methods to prevent it from doing so.  This topic will be useful for my future academic career, as my capstone group and I grapple with problems of nuclear security and regional tensions.  It will also improve my chances of being accepted for the NNSA fellowship, which would be the jumping off point for my career in nuclear security.  The technical knowledge I gained regarding nuclear power and nuclear weapons will be especially useful for the NNSA fellowship, which prefers applicants who already possess some technical knowhow.

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