North Korea seem to be restarting nuclear reactor, UN agency warns

Analysts say Yongbyon activity may be move to hostilities with goal of easing sanctions

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un: Yongbyon, the country’s main nuclear complex, was the critical bargaining chip offered in exchange for sanctions relief from Donald Trump. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

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.

Bargaining chip

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

A senior administration official said the US was “closely co-ordinating with our allies and partners” following the report.

“We continue to seek dialogue with the DPRK so we can address this reported activity and the full range of issues related to denuclearisation,” the official said, referring to North Korea’s official name.

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".

Nuclear weapons

"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," Mr 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 Centre, 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.

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. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021