US concerned over report of possible N Korea nuclear reprocessing

Pentagon says Pyongyang could be trying to grab attention of new administration after failed Trump summitry.

The IAEA report included activity at North Korea's Yongbyon and Kangson nuclear facilities [File: Kyodo via Reuters]

The Pentagon has expressed concern about North Korea’s nuclear activities after the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog indicated it was possible that the country was reprocessing nuclear fuel.

Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, head of intelligence for the US Indo-Pacific command, said North Korean activity highlighted this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could be intended to get the attention of the Biden administration and as a bargaining chip to press for sanctions relief.

The new administration is currently reviewing US-North Korea policy.

“We have our eye on this. And it is deeply concerning where North Korea wants to go,” Studeman told a virtual event on technology and security.

In a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Monday, Director-General Rafael Grossi mentioned activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon and Kangson nuclear facilities.

He said there had been recent indications of the operation of a steam plant that serves a radiochemical laboratory.

North Korea has used its radiochemical lab at Yongbyon to reprocess plutonium from a reactor there for nuclear bombs.

Grossi called North Korea’s continued nuclear activity a clear violation of UN sanctions and “deeply regrettable”.

Seeking Biden’s attention

Referring to Grossi’s statement, Studeman said, “The IAEA board of governors issued a notice that there had been evidence of the Koreans reprocessing perhaps nuclear fuel.

“If that is true, then that could put us into a different level of tension with Korea,” he said.

“This may be the start of something that’s designed to influence the Biden administration; it may be the first way of getting the new administration’s attention here, where perhaps [North Korea] would use this reprocessing development as a bargaining chip for sanctions relief of some sort.”

North Korea Kim Jong-un missile
A US general said North Korea’s recent nuclear activity could be an attempt to get the attention of the Biden administration and as a bargaining chip to press for sanctions relief [File: KCNA via Reuters]

The administration of President Joe Biden, which took office in January, is conducting a full review of North Korea policy following former President Donald Trump’s unprecedented engagement with leader Kim Jong Un, in a display of summitry that failed to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons.

Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said the approach to North Korea could involve more sanctions or unspecified diplomatic incentives.

A confidential UN report last month said North Korea continued to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes throughout 2020.

Jenny Town, deputy director of the Washington-based North Korea monitoring project 38 North, told Reuters that satellite images it had received of Yongbyon from February 17 and March 2 showed steam coming from the complex’s laboratory, which had not been known to be in operation for about two years.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that reprocessing has started, but it could be an indication of preparations for that,” she said.

North Korea uses both uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons, but the latter allows for smaller and lighter bombs.

Source: Reuters