The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says that a nuclear reactor with the capacity for producing weapons-grade plutonium in North Korea appears to be active, according to CNN.
The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog group pointed to several hints that seemed to confirm this possibility, including the discharging of cooling water in early July. This marked the first instance of apparent activity at the plant since December 2018, which would indicate that the once-dormant facility has been deliberately restarted. The reactor is located in Yongbyon, home to the country’s most well-known nuclear complex.
These and other findings were included in the IAEA’s annual report on North Korea’s nuclear program, published Friday, which described the current situation as “deeply troubling” and “a cause for serious concern.” The report described “the continuation of the DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) nuclear program” as “a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions,” and “deeply regrettable.”
According to the IAEA, the plant’s purpose is the production of nuclear fuel. But the facility’s radiochemical laboratory can also reprocess the fuel rods into plutonium that could ultimately be used in the manufacturing of nuclear missiles. IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi previously said in June that the length of observed activity at the facility was consistent “with the time required for a reprocessing campaign.” But Grossi added that it was technically impossible to directly confirm that reprocessing is actually taking place, since IAEA inspectors have been banned from the country since 2009.
The apparent restarting of such a crucial process suggests a further deterioration of the relationship between North Korea and the United States. In 2018, President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un at a historic summit that marked the first-ever meeting between leaders of the U.S. and the DPRK, and subsequently held two more summits with Kim to discuss a possible peace agreement between North and South Korea, as well as possible denuclearization of the DPRK.
However, after Joe Biden took over in the United States, North Korea has all but cut off contact with the U.S., and has refused to respond to Biden’s requests for another summit.