SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – North Korea appears to have restarted the operation of its main nuclear reactor used to produce weapons fuels, the UN atomic agency said, as the North openly threatens to expand its nuclear arsenal amid dormant nuclear diplomacy with the United States. States.
The annual report of the International Atomic Energy Agency refers to a 5 megawatt reactor in the main North nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang. The reactor produces plutonium, one of the two key ingredients used to make nuclear weapons, as well as highly enriched uranium.
“Since the beginning of July 2021, there have been indications, in particular of cooling water discharges, compatible with the operation of the reactor”, indicates the IAEA report dated Friday.
The report said there were indications of the operation of the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory from mid-February to early July of this year. He said that this period of operation is in line with previous reprocessing campaigns announced by North Korea of ââused fuel unloaded from the reactor. The laboratory is a facility where plutonium is extracted by reprocessing spent fuel rods removed from reactors.
“The nuclear activities (of North Korea) continue to be a source of serious concern. In addition, new indications of the operation of the 5 megawatt reactor and the radiochemical laboratory are deeply disturbing,” the IAEA said.
The IAEA has not had access to Yongbyon or other places in North Korea since the country expelled IAEA inspectors in 2009. The agency said it was using satellite imagery and open source information to monitor developments in the North Korean nuclear program.
The Yongbyon complex also produces highly enriched uranium, the other key nuclear fuel. The IAEA report said “there were indications, for some time, that the reported centrifugal enrichment facility was not in service”, although regular vehicle movements were observed. .
The complex, which North Korea calls “the heart” of its nuclear program and research, has been at the center of international concern for decades. It is not known exactly how much military-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium has been produced in Yongbyon and where North Korea is storing it.
In early 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle the entire complex if he got significant sanctions relief at a summit with then-President Donald Trump. But the Americans rejected Kim’s offer because it would only be a partial surrender of his nuclear capacity.
North Korea is believed to operate several other coveted uranium enrichment facilities. According to a South Korean estimate in 2018, North Korea may also have already manufactured 20 to 60 nuclear weapons.
In recent months, North Korea has warned that it will expand its nuclear program if the United States does not renounce its “hostile” policy towards the North, apparently referring to sanctions led by the United States and regular US-South Korean military exercises. Earlier this month, Kim’s powerful sister Kim Yo Jong said North Korea would step up “absolute deterrence” to deal with escalating US threats.
Lee Jong-joo, spokesperson for South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said on Monday that South Korea was closely monitoring North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities with the United States. But she declined to say whether Seoul saw any signs the North was reactivating its nuclear facilities.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.