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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
North Korea Makes Progress on Reactor
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Kelsey Davenport

North Korea’s continued construction of a light-water reactor (LWR) that experts say could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium is “deeply troubling,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Yukiya Amano said last month.

Addressing the IAEA Board of Governors at the start of its quarterly meeting on Sept. 10, Amano said Pyongyang has made “significant progress” on the reactor since the IAEA submitted its previous findings on the status of North Korea’s nuclear program in September 2011. Citing its monitoring through satellite imagery, the agency said in its latest report, dated Aug. 30, that a dome has been installed over the facility and a system for pumping water up to the reactor building has been put in place.

In a Sept. 5 statement, a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry denounced the IAEA report, saying that the agency does not have the “qualifications to intervene” in the country’s “nuclear activities.” The IAEA has not been able to implement safeguards in North Korea since April 2009 when Pyongyang decided to cease cooperation with the agency.

The LWR is one of the two known facilities that North Korea has not declared to the IAEA. In his speech to the board, Amano also expressed concern over statements issued by North Korea regarding its second undeclared facility, which houses centrifuges for uranium enrichment. In the report, the agency said it had “no new information” and is “unable to determine the facility’s configuration or operational status.” However, in an Aug. 31 letter to the UN Security Council, North Korea said it started “the production of enriched uranium” to provide fuel for the LWR.

On the basis of satellite imagery of these construction activities, experts say the reactor could be completed in mid- to late 2013. North Korea announced plans for the facility in 2009.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has been plutonium based, and the construction of the uranium-enrichment plant was widely seen as an effort to develop the means to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons.

North Korea’s Intentions

LWRs, while typically not used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, can be configured for this purpose, although the IAEA report draws no conclusion about the eventual purpose of the facility. The agency said that, without access to the site, it cannot assess the facility’s “design features.”

North Korean statements about the purpose of the facilities appear to have shifted in the past year. In a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry Nov. 30, a spokesman said that the country’s nuclear activities were peaceful and that the LWR would be used to solve the “acute electricity problem” in North Korea. However, in an Aug. 31 submission to the UN Security Council, North Korea said it would be “expanding its nuclear deterrent capability” in response to what it perceives as “increased hostile moves” by countries such the United States and had redirected its “peaceful nuclear power industry for producing electricity to the building-up of a self-defensive nuclear deterrent.”

The statement is the latest twist in the history of Pyongyang’s changing actions and rhetoric in connection with its nuclear program. North Korea is building the reactor near the site of its previous plutonium-production reactor and plutonium-separation plant, which it clandestinely built in the late 1980s and 1990s to produce weapons-grade plutonium, despite having signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985.

In 2007, with assistance from the United States, Pyongyang dismantled the reactor and separation plant as part of the denuclearization framework for North Korea being negotiated through the six-party talks, which also included China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. (See ACT, March 2007.) After the negotiations stalled in December 2008, North Korea resumed some nuclear activities (see ACT, May 2009) and began new ones, such as construction of the new LWR.

Shortly after the United States and North Korea reached the Feb. 29 agreement on a uranium-enrichment moratorium in exchange for food aid, North Korea issued an invitation to the IAEA in a letter dated March 16 to visit the country to “discuss technical issues” related to the moratorium. (See ACT, April 2012.) After the agreement between the United States and North Korea broke down following a failed April 13 satellite launch by North Korea, Pyongyang withdrew its offer to the IAEA.

U.S. Response

Addressing the IAEA board Sept. 12, U.S. envoy Robert Wood echoed Amano’s concern over North Korea’s recent nuclear activities, saying that the country “continues to engage in nuclear activities and expand its nuclear infrastructure.” He said that the U.S. “core objective” remains “verifiable denuclearization” and North Korea’s “return to the NPT and IAEA safeguards.” North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003.

When asked at an Aug. 22 press briefing if placement of a dome on the LWR raised concerns in the administration about North Korea’s progress on its nuclear program, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. “concerns are the same as they have always been” and that the State Department would like North Korea to return to the six-party talks “ready to deal with the international community’s concerns.”

Although a resumption of the talks has not been announced, all six parties were present at this year’s Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, which was held Sept. 27-28 in Dalian, China. The group’s 2009 meeting in California was the last that all six countries attended. North Korea did not attend the 2010 meeting in Seoul or the 2011 meeting in Hawaii. Begun in 1993, the talks serve as an unofficial forum for discussions among the six countries on regional security issues.