This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A new report by the U.N.’s atomic energy agency that North Korea may have restarted a five-megawatt nuclear reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear power facility believed to be capable of producing plutonium for nuclear weapons, has sparked calls by the United States and South Korea for the resumption of international talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.
“[S]ince early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor,” said the report issued Friday by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The Vienna, Austria-based IAEA monitors developments in the North’s nuclear program and evaluates available open source information and satellite imagery, though the agency has not had access to the Yongbyon site or to other locations in the reclusive country since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009 and subsequently continued its nuclear weapons program.
“The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern,” the report said. “Furthermore, the new indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor and the Radiochemical Laboratory are deeply troubling.”
“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” it said.
The Security Council has passed several resolutions sanctioning North Korea in response to the country’s nuclear and missile activities since 2006.
In response to the report, a senior administration official at the State Department said Monday that officials there were aware of the report and were closely coordinating with U.S. allies and partners on developments regarding North Korea.
“This report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy, so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki at the daily press briefing at the White House on Monday.
“We continue to seek dialogue with the DPRK so we can address this reported activity and the full range of issues related to denuclearization,” she said.
The Biden administration has said it is willing to engage with North Korea diplomatically on ending the nuclear threat, but likely will not lift harsh sanctions against the country for its past ballistic missile tests and nuclear program.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong Un at a summit in Singapore in June 2018 — the first-ever meeting between leaders of the U.S. and North Korea — where they signed a joint statement in which the North would work toward a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in exchange for U.S. security guarantees.
At a second summit in Hanoi in 2019, the two leaders failed to reach a denuclearization deal when Trump refused to drop sanctions against the North first before a promised dismantling of nuclear weapons at the Yongbyon facility.
Nuclear envoy arrives
Two days after the IAEA’s report was issued, South Korea’s top nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk arrived in Washington for talks with his U.S. counterparts on ways to restart denuclearization negotiations with North Korea.
His trip came on the heels of a visit to Seoul last week by Sung Kim, the U.S.’s special envoy for North Korea, amid annual nine-day U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises that Pyongyang warned could create a serious security crisis.
The United Nations responded to the report, saying that Secretary-General António Guterres is concerned by the latest developments. He has called on North Korea to refrain from nuclear weapons-related activities and to resume diplomatic talks with the other parties concerned as the only way to forge sustainable peace and the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
Following a meeting with U.S. State Department officials on Monday, Seoul’s envoy Noh Kyu-duk said that his government was closely monitoring the North’s weapons of mass destruction activities in close cooperation with the U.S.
“South Korea and the U.S share the view that the North Korean nuclear issue is a task that needs to be urgently resolved through diplomacy and dialogue while maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula,” he said.
U.S special envoy Sung Kim said that the two side reaffirmed the shared goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” and looked forward to hearing from the DPRK.
U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who has championed nuclear nonproliferation, said he was “deeply disappointed” in Pyongyang’s decision to reject diplomacy and restart operations at Yongbyon.
“Kim Jong Un should return to the negotiating table so we do not see a return to ‘fire and fury,’” he said, referring to a comment made by Trump in August 2017 warning that the North would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” following revelations that Pyongyang had successfully created a miniaturized nuclear weapon that could fit in its missiles.
“The international community must send the message that Kim Jong UN’s provocative proliferation stands in the way of peace on the Peninsula,” Markey said.
‘Build, provoke, and threaten’
Analysts said that any moves by North Korea to restart the Yongbyon facility were concerning, but not completely unexpected.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow on Northeast Asia at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, called the information in the report “a very worrisome development.”
“[A]ny action by North Korea to augment its nuclear or missile arsenals is troublesome to not only U.S. security but to the security of our allies,” he said.
“It could augment North Korea’s already ongoing efforts to expand its nuclear arsenal and the current production that it’s undergoing,” he added.
In 2017, U.S. intelligence community estimated based on leaked documents that the North could have 30 to 60 nuclear weapons or weapons’ worth of fissile material — plutonium or uranium —and could produce seven to 12 more annually, Klingner said.
“Just extrapolating from those numbers, North Korea could have close to 100 weapons or weapons’ worth [of fissile material] right now,” he said.
Soo Kim, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, said North Korea never intended to surrender its nuclear weapons program, as now evidenced by the apparent restarting of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.
“Amid stalled nuclear negotiations with the U.S., this latest development may also help Pyongyang signal to the U.S. and the international community of its intent to keep developing its nuclear weapons capabilities,” she said.
“Pyongyang will continue to build, provoke, and threaten, with the intention of extracting concessions and eventually getting the U.S. and the international community to accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power,” Kim added.
“The U.S. and South Korea should be wary of Pyongyang’s intentions, and not fall into the trap of expecting or hoping that the regime will come around with the right timing and balance of concessions,” she said.