North Korea’s nuclear program is moving “at full speed” and Pyongyang has restarted a reactor that “produced plutonium for nuclear weapons,” the UN warned today.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) warned last month of activity around a five-megawatt reactor at the country’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon.
It produces plutonium, one of the two main ingredients used to make bombs, along with highly enriched uranium.
IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said on Monday: “In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, [the] nuclear program continues at full speed with work on plutonium separation, uranium enrichment and other activities.’
North Korea launched a ballistic missile from the back of a train last week in its latest show of force after the South performed its first successful launch from a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
Meanwhile, Pyongyang backs its ally China by warning that the new security pact between the US, UK and Australia could lead to a ‘nuclear arms race’.
Kim Jong Un receives the admiration of his people during a military parade to mark the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the republic in Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang on September 9.
A satellite image of North Korea’s main uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyon
Kim Jong-un’s foreign ministry called the Aukus alliance an alliance that “will upset the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and unleash a chain of nuclear arms race.”
As part of a new strategic relationship, the UK and US have agreed to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia.
The deal is widely seen as an attempt to curb Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Beijing is one of North Korea’s few allies in the region.
North Korea stopped testing nuclear bombs and intercontinental ranged missiles that could hit the U.S. mainland in 2018, when Kim began diplomacy with former President Donald Trump as he tried to use his arsenal for much-needed sanctions relief.
Nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled since the collapse of a second Trump-Kim meeting in 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korean demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for the dismantling of an aging nuclear facility. That would have been only a partial surrender of the North’s nuclear capabilities.
The North has continued to test shorter-range weapons, threatening US allies South Korea and Japan in an apparent effort to pressure the Biden administration over stalled diplomacy.
Last week, the North tested a new cruise missile that it eventually plans to arm with nuclear warheads and demonstrated a new system for launching ballistic missiles from trains.
The North’s railcar launches on Wednesday came hours before the South reported the first test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. The army’s double display could highlight a return of tensions in the region.
In a separate statement Monday, the North mocked the South’s test, saying the missile was clunky and did not appear ready for military use.
Jang Chang Ha, president of the North Korean Academy of National Defense, said the rudimentary weapons system designed to fire conventionally armed missiles poses no immediate threat to the north.
The North tested its Pukguksong-3 missile from an offshore platform in 2019, as part of a years-long effort to acquire the ability to fire nuclear-armed missiles from submarines.
The Seoul missile was fired underwater from the newly commissioned submarine Ahn Chang-ho. from South Korea
North Korea tested ballistic missiles hours before the South’s SLBM tests
The IAEA released a report last month saying that Pyongyang appeared to have restarted the Yongbyon reactor.
The report states: “Since the beginning of July 2021, there are indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor.”
It added that there was evidence of the Yonbyon radiochemical laboratory operating from mid-February to early July this year.
According to the report, this operating period is consistent with previous reprocessing campaigns announced by North Korea for spent fuel discharged from the reactor.
The laboratory is a facility where plutonium is recovered by reprocessing spent fuel rods removed from reactors.
The IAEA said: “The nuclear activities of (North Korea) remain a matter of serious concern. Furthermore, the new indications about the operation of the 5 megawatt reactor and the radiochemical laboratory are very disturbing.’
The IAEA has not had access to Yongbyon or other locations in North Korea since the country deported IAEA inspectors in 2009. The agency said it is using satellite imagery and open source information to monitor developments in North Korea’s nuclear program.
The Yongbyon complex also produces highly enriched uranium, the other major nuclear fuel.
The IAEA report stated that ‘for a period of time there was evidence that the reported centrifuge enrichment facility was not in operation’, 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 concerns for decades.
It’s not clear exactly how much weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium was produced in Yonbyong and where North Korea stores it.
In early 2019, Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle the entire complex if he were given extensive sanctions relief during a summit with then-President Donald Trump.
North Korea is rapidly expanding its plutonium-producing reprocessing reactor just days after it was announced it was restarting the facility. Pictured: September 14
The former dormant Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility, which can enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, is being renovated. Pictured: September 1
But the Americans turned down Kim’s offer because it would be only a partial surrender of its nuclear capability.
North Korea is said to have several other secret uranium enrichment facilities. According to a 2018 South Korean estimate, North Korea may have already made 20-60 nuclear weapons.
In recent months, North Korea has warned that it would expand its nuclear program if the United States does not withdraw its “hostile” policy toward the north, in a clear reference to US-led sanctions and regular US-South Koreans. military exercises.
Earlier this month, Kim’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, said North Korea would strengthen “absolute deterrence” to counter mounting US threats.
Lee Jong-joo, of South Korea’s Unification Ministry, said on Monday that South Korea is closely monitoring North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities, along with the United States.
But she declined to comment on whether Seoul sees signs that the north is reactivating its nuclear facilities.