U.N. watchdog says no signs North Korea has halted nuclear activities

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The United Nations’ atomic watchdog has said it has not seen any signs that North Korea has halted its nuclear activities — including those at secret sites — despite its vows to work toward denuclearization at a landmark summit with the U.S. in June.

“The continuation and further development of the DPRK’s nuclear programme and related statements by the DPRK are a cause for grave concern,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report released late Monday, using the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The report by IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano, which is to be submitted to a board meeting of the body next month, characterized the North’s continuing activities at its nuclear facilities as “deeply regrettable.”

The activities include those at the North’s Nyongbyon nuclear reactor complex, the use of the building that houses the reported centrifuge enrichment facility and ongoing construction at the site.

The IAEA also appeared to confirm earlier reports of at least one separate, clandestine uranium enrichment site “within a security perimeter in the vicinity of Pyongyang.”

It said the size of the main building and the characteristics of the associated infrastructure at that site “are not inconsistent with a centrifuge enrichment facility” and “the timeline of construction is not inconsistent” with the North’s reported uranium enrichment program.

Last month, media reports revealed that the North was secretly operating a suspected uranium enrichment facility, called Kangson. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged during Senate testimony later in the month that North Korean factories “continue to produce fissile material” used in making nuclear weapons.

Joshua Pollack, editor of the U.S.-based Nonproliferation Review and a leading expert on nuclear and missile proliferation, said Tuesday that the IAEA report should be taken seriously, noting that despite the North Korean intelligence black hole, it has “a track record of being meticulous.”

“When @iaeaorg writes ‘not inconsistent with,’ they are being appropriately cautious,” Pollack wrote on Twitter. “That means that they see no reason to dispute the identification, but can’t independently confirm it, either.”

In 2009, Pyongyang booted IAEA inspectors from the Nyongbyon site and has since refused to allow inspections by the group on its territory. Instead, the group has bolstered its monitoring of the North via open source information and satellite imagery, according to the report.

“As the Agency remains unable to carry out verification activities in the DPRK, its knowledge of the DPRK’s nuclear program is limited and, as further nuclear activities take place in the country, this knowledge is declining,” it said.

Between late April and early May, there were indications of the operation of the steam plant that serves the radiochemical laboratory at Nyongbyon, the report said.

However, the steam plant was not operating long enough to have supported the reprocessing of a complete core from the experimental nuclear power plant reactor, it added.

The report also said that steam charges and the outflow of cooling water at the plant “consistent with the reactor’s operation” had been observed.

“Since December 2015, when the current operational cycle started, there have been indications consistent with several short periods of reactor shutdown,” it said. “However, none of these periods were of sufficient duration for the complete reactor core to have been discharged. The Agency’s observations indicate that the current operational cycle is longer than the previous one.”

It also discovered “indications consistent with the use of the reported centrifuge enrichment facility located within the plant, including the operation of the cooling units as well as regular movements of vehicles.”

Since U.S. President Donald Trump’s landmark June meeting in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a steady trickle of reports citing U.S. intelligence and other sources have claimed that Pyongyang has continued to boost its nuclear fuel production and missile capabilities at multiple secret sites despite a denuclearization pledge agreed to at the historic meeting.

At the Singapore summit, Kim and Trump reached a vague agreement to “work towards the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” But while talks have continued, including a visit in early July to Pyongyang by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there has been little movement since the Kim-Trump meeting.

Speculation has grown that Pompeo will soon make his fourth visit to North Korea, with an apparent aim of breaking the impasse in denuclearization talks.

In a Sunday interview on ABC’s “This Week,” White House national security adviser John Bolton said that Pompeo would be returning to North Korea soon, this time for direct talks with Kim — or so the Trump administration hoped.

In a report Tuesday, citing an unidentified source, the Korea Times said that North Korea has agreed to provide key information to the United States about its nuclear warheads and secret test sites.

“North Korea plans to hand over a list of its secret nuclear test sites as well as information about its nuclear warheads to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he visits Pyongyang this month,” the source said.