North Korea appears to have restarted operations at a power plant capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said that clues, such as the discharge of cooling water, observed in early July indicated the plant is active. No such evidence had been observed since December 2018, the IAEA said.
The IAEA said the findings, published Friday in an annual report on Pyongyang’s nuclear program, were “deeply troubling” and “a cause for serious concern.”
“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” the report added, referring to North Korea by its official acronym, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The IAEA said there also were signs of activity at the nearby radiochemical laboratory, from mid-February until early July. The power plant is used to make nuclear fuel, and the radiochemical laboratory is used to reprocess the fuel rods from the plant into plutonium that can, theoretically, be used in the manufacturing of nuclear weapons.
Both the plant and the lab are located in North Korea’s best-known nuclear complex, Yongbyon.
The IAEA and other independent analysts have previously reported on the observed activity at the radiochemical laboratory and believed it may have been part of a campaign to turn nuclear fuel into plutonium for nuclear weapons.
IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said in June that the duration of activity at the lab was consistent “with the time required for a reprocessing campaign.”
However, Grossi said it was not possible to confirm that reprocessing was taking place. IAEA inspectors were kicked out of North Korea in 2009, and the agency has been forced to monitor the country’s nuclear facilities remotely.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry said it is observing North Korea’s nuclear and missile activity continuously under close cooperation with the United States.
The fact that a reprocessing campaign has been underway likely indicates that North Korea had already produced nuclear fuel to be reprocessed. Whether that fuel was a few years old or produced recently, and covertly, remains unclear.
Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said that though the IAEA’s report was expected, it is an important reminder of the challenges US President Joe Biden faces with respect to a nuclear-armed North Korea.
“At some level, none of this is new, but it is notable that the IAEA has said business at usual is going on at Yongbyon,” Lewis said. “One of the problems that we’ve had with North Korea is because it’s been business as usual for the past several years, people have kind of just gotten used to the idea (of a nuclear-armed North Korea) and kind of forget about it. This stuff has been happening, and we only check in now and again.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un purportedly offered to dismantle the Yongbyon complex in exchange for sanctions relief during negotiations with former US President Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019. However, those talks collapsed in part because neither side was willing to budge. Trump’s team wanted either ballistic missile or other nuclear sites included in the deal, and Kim refused to accept a trade of Yongbyon for partial sanctions relief, Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in his memoir.
Relations between the two longtime adversaries have been frosty since, and both Washington and Pyongyang have been focused on containing the threat of Covid-19 since the pandemic swept the globe in early 2020. North Korea’s borders have been sealed to keep the virus at bay, despite the knock-on effects on trade with China, an economic lifeline for the impoverished country. Kim’s regime is now reportedly dealing with a food crisis.
President Biden’s administration has made several attempts to reach out to North Korea by email to start discussions with Washington, a senior South Korean official with direct knowledge of the situation said.
North Korea has acknowledged receipt of the emails, the official said but did not feel compelled to respond due to what is seen as a lack of a detailed agenda or any serious indication the US is willing to move the conversation forward from what was agreed upon at Trump and Kim’s first summit Singapore in June 2018.