North Korea probably has restarted a reactor that produces plutonium suitable for weapons, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Independent analysts reached a similar conclusion in September.
In a Nov. 28 statement at the quarterly meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, Director-General Yukiya Amano said that activities at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site captured on satellite imagery are “consistent with an effort to restart” the reactor. But lack of access makes it impossible to “conclusively determine” that the reactor was restarted, Amano said. North Korea currently does not permit the IAEA to inspect its facilities.
Last April, Pyongyang said it intended to rebuild and restart the reactor at the Yongbyon site. (See ACT, May 2013.) The reactor, built in the 1980s, provided North Korea with the plutonium that it separated for use in its nuclear arsenal, an amount estimated to be sufficient for six to 12 warheads.
North Korea disabled the reactor in 2007 and destroyed the reactor’s cooling tower in 2008 as part of an agreement reached in 2005 with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States in the so-called six-party talks. It was unclear if North Korea would be able to operate the reactor after these actions. Satellite images taken in August, however, indicated to independent analysts that Pyongyang was able to restart the reactor. (See ACT, October 2013.)
The activities at Yongbyon “indicate a continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said Joseph Macmanus, U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, in a Nov. 28 statement to the board. He said if North Korea does not comply with its international obligations to dismantle its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Pyongyang will “continue to face the consequences of this defiance.” The United States will work to “maintain and enhance, as necessary, the pressure to compel North Korea” to abandon these activities, which damage the global nonproliferation regime, Macmanus said.
A week after the IAEA meeting, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said that North Korea “needs to understand that it cannot return to the old pattern of seeking rewards for bad behavior.” Speaking in Seoul on Dec. 6, Biden reiterated U.S. policy, saying that Washington will return to the six-party talks only after Pyongyang “demonstrates its full commitment to complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”
The six-party talks began in 2003 and continued intermittently until April 2009, when Pyongyang withdrew without having completed the dismantling of its nuclear program.
Analysis of satellite photos of the Yongbyon site by independent experts indicates that North Korea is expanding the building that houses its centrifuges for uranium enrichment. A Dec. 5 report by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that North Korea is expanding a centrifuge plant believed to be producing enriched uranium. According to the report, there are signs of construction, including renovation of a roof, at the facility.
Pyongyang announced in June 2009 that it had uranium-enrichment capabilities. In November 2010, it unveiled an enrichment plant to several former U.S. officials and academics. One of the visitors, former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, said that the plant had about 2,000 centrifuges, but he was unable to confirm if the centrifuges were operational. (See ACT, December 2010.)