According to a new study from the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, North Korea appears to have resumed running a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus.
According to an IAEA report presented to the agency’s board of governors on Friday, the 5-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility has displayed signs of use since last month.
“There were no indications of reactor operation from early December 2018 to the beginning of July 2021,” the report said. “However, since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor.”
The nuclear agency hasn’t had access to North Korea since Pyongyang ousted its inspectors in 2009, so it’s relied on satellite photos to keep track on what’s going on there.
The research also discovered operations at a steam plant that services Yongbyon’s radiochemical laboratory from February to July, a time range that was “consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel from the 5MW(e) reactor,” according to the report.
“The new indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor and the Radiochemical Laboratory are deeply troubling,” the report said. “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the official name of North Korea.
North Korea has frequently slammed joint military exercises between the US and South Korea this month, calling them a “war rehearsal” and threatening a “security catastrophe.”
North Korea’s Foreign Ministry blasted the drills in a statement released Sunday, calling them “the most vivid display of the US hostile strategy against the DPRK.”
According to the statement, the North will “continuously build up the strongest war deterrent in order to overwhelm ever-worsening military threats from the US.”
Pyongyang has not undertaken any nuclear or long-range missile tests since 2017, but in March it launched two short-range ballistic missiles in violation of UN restrictions.
North Korea has “not only continued to expand and modernize its ballistic missile program but has also increased its nuclear strike capability,” according to a March assessment by a United Nations Security Council panel of experts.
The Yongbyon center is estimated to be capable of generating roughly 7 kilos of plutonium per year, and the country may have a stockpile of 60 kilograms of the radioactive chemical element, according to the panel.
The amount of nuclear warheads held by Pyongyang is unknown. North Korea has created enough fissile material to make between 40 and 50 nuclear warheads, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, although it may not have assembled that many.
Since a February 2019 meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and then-US President Donald Trump concluded without a deal, Washington’s efforts to reach an agreement with Pyongyang on nuclear issues have been stymied.
The Biden administration has indicated a readiness to engage diplomatically with North Korea, taking a “measured and sensible approach,” according to the administration.
Sung Kim, the United States’ senior envoy for North Korea, visited Seoul this week and reaffirmed Washington’s desire to engage Pyongyang.
“I continue to stand ready to meet with my North Korean counterparts anywhere, at any time,” Sung Kim told reporters.