Nuclear watchdog sounds warning over restart of North Korean reactor

North Korea nuclear tensions updates

The UN’s nuclear watchdog has warned that North Korea appears to have restarted a critical reactor at its biggest nuclear materials complex, raising another security challenge for Joe Biden as the US president faces immense pressure over the crisis in Afghanistan.


Since early July, there have been “indications consistent with the operation” of the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report, calling signs that the reactor could have been restarted “deeply troubling”.

The report marked the first signal of operations at Yongbyon, about 90km north of Pyongyang, since December 2018, between the two summits held by Kim Jong Un and then US president Donald Trump.

The latest signs of activity included steam at a plant that serves the site’s radiochemical laboratory, which was in operation between February and July, the report said. That was followed by the discharge of cooling water.


“This period of operation is consistent with previous reprocessing campaigns announced by the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] of irradiated fuel discharged from the . . . reactor,” the IAEA said.

It added that in 2003, 2005 and 2009, North Korea announced reprocessing campaigns at the laboratory, each of which lasted approximately five months.

Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear complex, was the critical bargaining chip offered by Kim in exchange for sanctions relief from Washington. Despite three face-to-face meetings with Trump and the exchange of letters, Kim’s offer to destroy the facility was not accepted.


Analysts said the restart of activities at Yongbyon could herald the first step by Pyongyang towards an escalation of military hostilities in an attempt to ease sanctions.

“Since the North Koreans know this kind of nuclear activity will be easily detected, one has to wonder if they are gearing up to try to sell Yongbyon again,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “But even if Pyongyang is considering returning to negotiations . . . it may lead off with a missile test rather than diplomatic engagement.”

Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, said that reopening Yongbyon confirmed the trajectory of North Korea improving “the survivability of its nuclear deterrent, absent a credible alternative path”. 


“In some sense, it creates artificial bargaining leverage for it the same way the US piled sanctions on North Korea at the end of the Obama era in order to give his successor artificial bargaining leverage,” Jackson said.

Since taking office, the Biden administration has completed a review of its North Korea policy and insisted that it remained open to talks, despite criticism that the nuclear-armed regime was not at the forefront of Washington’s foreign policy.

The reactor at Yongbyon can annually produce up to 6kg of plutonium, a crucial fissile material, alongside uranium, for making nuclear weapons.


Olli Heinonen, former deputy director-general of the IAEA who is now with the Stimson Center, a US think-tank, wrote last month that while the plutonium production reactors at Yongbyon were “easy to identify and monitor via commercial satellite imagery, the North’s uranium enrichment activities are much more difficult to discern”.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said more specific information was needed to determine if North Korea was extracting weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon.

Yang added that while the reactor restart would spark concern in Washington, the US was facing more immediate problems, including the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan and the coronavirus pandemic.


The actions at Yongbyon also followed recent UN reports that noted allegations that Pyongyang had resumed technical co-operation with Iran on long-range ballistic missile development. Officials in Tehran have denied the claims.

A report this year by the Rand Corporation, a US think-tank, estimated that North Korea already had between 67 to 116 nuclear weapons, and could have as many as 242 by 2027.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington


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