The UN’s nuclear watchdog has warned that North Korea appeared to have restarted its biggest nuclear reactor, 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 indications 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.
North Korea’s main nuclear complex at Yongbyon was the critical bargaining chip offered by Kim in exchange for sanctions relief from Washington. Despite three face-to-face meetings and the exchange of letters, Kim’s offer to destroy the facilities was not accepted.
Analysts noted the restart of activities at Yongbyon could herald the first step by Pyongyang towards an escalation of military hostilities in a bid 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 to determine its North Korea policy and insisted that it remained open to talks, despite criticism that nuclear-armed North Korea was not at the forefront of Washington’s foreign policy.
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.
Yoon added that while the 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 restart of Yongbyon also followed recent UN reports that have noted allegations that Pyongyang resumed technical co-operation with Iran on long-range ballistic missile development. Officials in Tehran have denied the claims.