Renewed nuclear activity in North Korea deeply troubling: UN atomic agency

North Korea appears to have restarted operations of its main nuclear reactor that is believed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. 

Yongbyon Nuclear complex, North Korea
Yongbyon Nuclear complex, North Korea

North Korea appears to have restarted the operation of its main nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, according to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The UN atomic agency said that it is "deeply troubled" by the indications, as the 5-megawatt reactor is widely believed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and is at the heart of North Korea's nuclear programme.

The UN Secretary-General is aware of the reports and concerned by the latest developments, informed UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric on August 30, 2021. The Secretary-General has called for North Korea to refrain from any nuclear weapons-related activities and resume talks with the other parties concerned.

He added saying, "diplomatic engagement seems to be the only pathway to ensure sustainable peace and complete and verified denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Key Highlights 

•International Atomic Energy Agency said in its annual report that North Korea's main nuclear reactor has been discharging cooling water since July, which suggests that it is operational.

•The duration of the work from mid-February to early July -suggests that a full batch of spent fuel was handled, in contrast to the shorter time required for waste treatment or maintenance.

•The atomic agency said that the new indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor along with the Radiochemical (reprocessing) laboratory is a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

•The report also suggests indications of mining and concentration activities at a uranium mine and plant at Pyongsan.

•The IAEA report dated August 27, 2021 stated that the first signs of operation at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor were spotted in late 2018. The 5-megawatt (MW) reactor is seen as capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

• The nuclear reactor appeared to be inactive from December 2018 until this year, the report added. 

What does this mean?

The suspected resumption of nuclear activity in North Korea is reportedly aimed to boost the nation's nuclear arsenal as a deterrent and a bargaining chip for potential talks with the United States. 

While intelligence on North Korean nuclear weapons is limited, the country reportedly can produce material for four to six bombs a year.

Monitoring of North Korea's nuclear programme 

International Atomic Energy Agency said that it has no access to North Korea after its inspectors were expelled from the country in 2009. The UN atomic agency monitors North Korea from afar, largely through satellite imagery.

The commercial satellite imagery only revealed water discharge at the site, which supported the agency's conclusion that operations have been resumed at the reactor. 


The resumption of nuclear activities at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor comes at a time when the nuclear talks between North Korea and the United States are at a standstill. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had earlier offered to dismantle a part of the Yongbyon nuclear complex but not other sites in exchange for sanctions relief during his second summit with former US President Donald Trump. 

His offer was rejected by Trump as Yongbyon was only a part of North Korea's nuclear programme and was not seen to be enough of a concession to loosen so many sanctions.

Current US President Joe Biden's administration has said that it reached out to North Korea to resume talks but North Korea has said that it has no interest in negotiating without a change in policy by the United States.

North Korea is currently facing multiple international sanctions over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.

Yongbyon Nuclear complex 

•Yongbyon, located about 100km north of Pyongyang, is home to North Korea's first nuclear reactor.

•The nuclear complex is the only known source of plutonium for North Korea's weapons programme.

•Pyongyang had suspended its nuclear and missile testing during the diplomatic process in 2018 but it said that it was abandoning its self-declared moratorium in January 2020.

•The nation has since then carried out a series of short-range missile launches but it has not conducted a nuclear test since 2017.


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