Aug 30, 2021 - World

UN watchdog: North Korea has restarted key nuclear reactor

A person watching news footage of North Korean leader news footage of Kim Jong Un speaking in Pyongyang in January 2021.
A person watching news footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaking in Pyongyang in January 2021. Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

North Korea appears to have resumed operations at a key nuclear reactor that is believed to produce fuel for nuclear weapons, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency said in a report dated Friday.

Why it matters: The move suggests North Korea is working to enlarge its nuclear arsenal after denuclearization talks with the U.S. stalled during the Trump administration.

What they're saying: The International Atomic Energy Agency said there have been indications of operations at the reactor in North Korea's main nuclear complex in Yongbyon since July 2021.

  • "There were no indications of reactor operation from early December 2018 to the beginning of July 2021. However, since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor," the IAEA said.
  • The nuclear watchdog said evidence also suggests North Korea operated a laboratory at Yongbyon for five months to extract plutonium, a key fuel for nuclear weapons, from nuclear waste.
  • It did not observe operations at a centrifuge facility used for enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels, though regular vehicular movements were seen.

Between the lines: The IAEA did not have direct access to Yongbyon because North Korea kicked its inspectors out of the country in 2009. The watchdog instead primarily used satellite imagery to monitor developments at the nuclear complex.

  • "The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable," IAEA said.

The big picture: Though President Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in reaffirmed the importance of North Korea's denuclearization in May, North Korea has not reengaged with the U.S. for denuclearization talks since they broke down after the second summit between Kim Jong-un and former President Trump in 2019.

  • Kim said in June that his country should prepare for dialogue and especially "confrontation" with the U.S. in order "to protect the dignity of our state and its interests for independent development."

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