A fresh storm may be brewing for U.S. President Joe Biden as he grapples with a number of foreign policy challenges, with this one arriving on the Korean Peninsula.
Nuclear-armed North Korea appears to have restarted the plutonium-producing reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear site, the U.N. atomic agency has said, calling the development “deeply troubling.”
The apparent restart last month — which would be the first time in nearly three years that the 5-megawatt reactor has been operational — could help North Korean leader Kim Jong Un add to his growing stockpile of fissile material.
“Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in its annual report on the North released over the weekend.
The reactor at the sprawling Yongbyon facility, its main nuclear complex, appeared to have halted operations in early December 2018, according to the report, which added that there are also signs that a nearby laboratory is being used to separate plutonium from spent fuel previously removed from the reactor.
A senior White House official told The Japan Times that the IAEA report highlighted the need for quick action on the North Korean nuclear issue — including close coordination with U.S. allies such as Japan.
“This report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” the official said.
“We continue to seek dialogue with the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) so we can address this reported activity and the full range of issues related to denuclearization,” the official added, using the North’s official name.
The IAEA has not had access to North Korea since Pyongyang booted inspectors from the country in 2009. It largely depends on satellite imagery to monitor the country’s nuclear sites.
Jenny Town, director of the North Korea-monitoring project 38 North, said that the group had examined satellite imagery that supported the IAEA report.
Town also noted that the timing of the apparent restart was eye-catching, since it came as the country grappled with the prospect of the type of heavy rains and flooding earlier this month that could impinge on reactor operations.
Almost a year ago, 38 North reported that floods appeared to have damaged pump houses linked to Yongbyon. Located on the bank of the Kuryong River about 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang, the Yongbyon site uses water from a nearby reservoir to cool the reactor, and extreme weather such as flooding could potentially force its shutdown.
Earlier this month, the North said that more than 1,000 homes were damaged and about 5,000 people evacuated after heavy rains triggered flooding.
“It’s interesting timing to restart the reactor — given the tendency toward seasonal flooding in the coming weeks that could affect reactor operations,” Town said.
While the facility was once considered the backbone of the North’s nuclear weapons program, some experts have dismissed the aging site as obsolete.
Still, others — including Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory — have maintained that the Yongbyon site remains a crucial part of the North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
“You shouldn’t just write off Yongbyon as old and obsolete. It isn’t,” Hecker said in April. “Yongbyon is the heart of North Korea’s fissile materials production complex.”
Experts have estimated that Yongbyon — which is believed to produce the bulk of the country’s plutonium — could make enough for one bomb each year, while its uranium enrichment facility could ultimately produce enough fissile material for six bombs per year in conjunction with other suspected sites.
Hecker has specifically noted that, in addition to North Korea’s plutonium production and some of its uranium enrichment, the entirety of its tritium is also produced there. Weapons experts say just a few grams of tritium can be used in a warhead to boost its efficiency, allowing bomb-makers to employ smaller and lighter designs for missiles.
In his second summit with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018, North Korea’s Kim offered to dismantle part of the Yongbyon complex in exchange for sanctions relief. Trump rejected that proposal, though experts such as Hecker have said that even a partial closure could have greatly curtailed production of fissile material.
The Biden administration has said that it is taking a “calibrated practical approach” to the issue and is “open to diplomacy” with the North Koreans, though observers say the issue remains relatively low on its list of priorities as it grapples with the challenge from China and now the crisis in Afghanistan.
In the absence of sanctions relief — what many observers say is Kim’s top goal — North Korea has appeared to double-down on a hard-line stance to the U.S., claiming that it continues to maintain a “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang — raising the specter of looming missile or weapons tests as it seeks to move itself up Biden’s agenda.
Earlier this month, Kim Yong Chol, a North Korean general and politician who played a leading role in the historic Kim-Trump summits, warned of the growing risk of a “serious security crisis” erupting between Pyongyang and the U.S. and its allies.
“Reopening Yongbyon confirms the trajectory of things — that North Korea continues to improve the survivability of its nuclear deterrent absent a credible alternative path,” said Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.
Jackson, who has written extensively on the North Korean nuclear issue, said the Yongbyon news highlighted that the U.S. approach to the nuclear issue remains “strategically listless.”
“And the situation will continue to atrophy until circumstances (emerge) for us to take North Korea seriously again.”
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