North Korea may have restarted nuke ops

VIENNA • North Korea may have resumed operations at its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear reactor in the past few months, the United Nations atomic watchdog said, a move that could help Mr Kim Jong Un's regime add to its stockpile of fissile material.

For the first time in about three years, it appears there were operations of the five megawatt reactor at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report over the weekend.

"Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor," it said, calling the move "deeply troubling".

It added: "The continuation of the... nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable."

The Yongbyon nuclear complex, which has served as the crown jewel of North Korea's atomic programme, is an ageing facility about 100km north of Pyongyang that once was the only source of its fissile material. It churned out roughly enough plutonium each year for one atomic bomb. Since then, North Korea has used uranium enrichment as the main source of fissile material for weapons.

"The announcement by the IAEA isn't a surprise - lots of groups have reported on the ongoing activity at Yongbyon - but the official confirmation reminds us that North Korea never stopped making nuclear weapons," said Dr Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia non-proliferation programme at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

Intelligence agencies and outside analysts have been watching developments at Yongbyon for years through satellite imagery. North Korea kicked out IAEA inspectors over a decade ago due to political rancour.

First constructed in 1979, its reactor has produced little electricity but supplied the plutonium and research facilities needed for North Korea to test its first atomic bomb in 2006. Restarting the reactor's operations could aid in the production of tritium - a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used to boost the yield of nuclear weapons.

"By choosing an easily detectable move, resuming plutonium-related activities could be more politically motivated to incite alarm and try to sell only Yongbyon again in future negotiations with Washington," Ms Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul at the Centre for a New American Security, said.

North Korea had offered to shut down parts of the Yongbyon complex in exchange for sanctions relief at a summit between then president Donald Trump and Mr Kim in February 2019. But Mr Trump walked out of the meeting in Hanoi, saying Pyongyang was asking for too much and offering too little in return.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2021, with the headline 'North Korea may have restarted nuke ops'. Subscribe