The North Koreans have restarted a reactor designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, a move that, if confirmed, would increase tensions between the reclusive communist regime and the international community at a time when world powers are focused on reining in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles.
“New commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility indicates that Pyongyang is probably restarting its 5 MWe gas-graphite plutonium production reactor,” Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis reported exclusively this week on the blog 38 North, which is affiliated with the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “Satellite imagery from August 31, 2013 shows white steam rising from a building near the reactor hall that houses the gas-graphite reactor’s steam turbines and electric generators.”
“If it turns out these reports are true … it would be a very serious matter,” Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies told reporters in Tokyo on Thursday, according to Reuters. Indeed, according to Hansen and Lewis, if it is fully operational, “The 5 MWe reactor is capable of producing six kilograms of plutonium a year that can be used by Pyongyang to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile.”
Compounding the problem is a recent report from the Institute for Science and International Security last month which found that North Korea “has apparently expanded a building in the fuel fabrication complex that houses a gas centrifuge plant for uranium enrichment.”
“Estimating North Korea’s level of uranium enrichment, in particular estimating the amount of weapon-grade uranium it has produced, is fraught with uncertainty,” write the report’s authors David Albright and Robert Avagyan, adding that if the North Koreans have decided to enrich uranium to weapons grade level, the expansion of the uranium enrichment complex “would allow for an increase in the production of enough weapon-grade uranium for up to two nuclear weapons per year.”
North Korea shut down the Yongbyon plutonium facility in 2007 under the terms of a six-nation deal (between South Korea, North Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia), while the deal subsequently broke down, restarting the facility would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“The reactor looks like it either is or will within a matter of days be fully operational, and as soon as that happens, it will start producing plutonium,” Lewis told the BBC. “They really are putting themselves in a position to increase the amount of material they have for nuclear weapons, which I think gives them a little bit of leverage in negotiations, and adds a sense of urgency on our part.”
The International Institute for Strategic Studies said in a report released on Thursday that the U.S. policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea doesn’t seem to be paying off. “Pyongyang is instead moving further away from the denuclearisation pledge and closer to projecting nuclear power over long ranges,” it said.
The North Koreans “have made clear that their nuclear program is here to stay—a position completely at odds with the four other major players [China, South Korea, Japan and Russia] in the region,” wrote CAP’s Rudy DeLeon and Luke Herman after the recent tensions with North Korea last April. “There is therefore little likely to be accomplished by high-level negotiations as long as North Korea is intent on being recognized as a nuclear power. The fear of legitimizing North Korea’s nuclear program means there must be a high threshold for bilateral negotiations between the North and the United States. Even negotiations over humanitarian aid must include proper oversight to ensure the aid ends up in the mouths of needy citizens, not the elite and military.”