‘Deeply troubling’: North Korea nuclear activity stokes fears

New UN nuclear agency report says ongoing activity at the Yongbyon facility continues to be ‘a cause for serious concern’.

North Korea's key Yongbyon nuclear plant is photographed in June 2008 [Kyodo via Reuters]

North Korea appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor that is widely believed to have produced plutonium for atomic weapons, the UN nuclear watchdog said, a likely signal Pyongyang is expanding its banned nuclear programme.

Signs of operation at the 5-megawatt (MW) reactor, which is seen as capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, were the first to be spotted since late 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report dated Friday.

“[North Korea’s] nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern. Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation,” the report (PDF) said of the reactor at Yongbyon nuclear complex.

“The new indications of the operation … are deeply troubling.”

The facility, which North Korea calls “the heart” of its nuclear programme, has been the focus of international concerns for decades. It is unclear exactly how much weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium has been produced at Yongbyon and where North Korea stores it.

The IAEA has had no access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009. The country subsequently pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons programme and soon resumed nuclear testing. Its last nuclear test was in 2017.

The IAEA now monitors North Korea from afar, largely through satellite imagery.

‘Expanding its arsenal’

About 100km (60 miles) north of Pyongyang, Yongbyon is home to the country’s first nuclear reactor and is the only known source of plutonium for North Korea’s weapons programme.

“[The IAEA report] appears to indicate North Korea has resumed producing plutonium for its nuclear weapons programme,” said Gary Samore, director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, told the Wall Street Journal.

“While North Korea already has a significant stockpile of nuclear weapons, this suggests it is moving to expand its current arsenal.”

At a 2019 summit in Vietnam with then-US president Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle Yongbyon in exchange for relief from a range of international sanctions over nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

At the time, Trump said he rejected the deal because Yongbyon was only one part of the North’s nuclear programme, and was not enough of a concession to warrant loosening so many sanctions.

US President Joe Biden’s administration said it reached out to the North Korean government to offer talks, but Pyongyang has said it has no interest in negotiating without a change in policy by the US.

Robert Kelly, a North Korea analyst from Pusan National University, told Al Jazeera Pyongyang is looking for more than Washington is currently offering to dismantle its nuclear programme.

“The weapons are what gives North Korea leverage. If you have 30 instead of 20 then this gives them more bargaining chips when eventually negotiations take place again. And if they don’t, then the weapons suit North Korean security for the better. It’s a reflection of the stalemate in negotiations over the last six months,” said Kelly.

‘Urgent need for dialogue’

A senior Biden administration official told the Wall Street Journal the US also found the announcement disturbing.

“This report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the unnamed official was quoted as saying.

There were also indications of mining and concentration activities at a uranium mine and plant at Pyongsan, and activity at a suspected covert enrichment facility in Kangson, it added.

It is a safe bet that North Korea intends any newly separated plutonium for weapons, said Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. He noted that, in a speech this year, Kim gave a long list of advanced weapons under development, including more nuclear bombs.

“North Korea’s appetite for warheads is not yet sated, it seems.”

Earlier this month, Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, said North Korea would bolster “absolute deterrence” to cope with intensifying US threats.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies