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North Korea Resumes Operations at Main Nuclear Reactor Site

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the close of a conference of cell secretaries of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, in this undated photo released on April 9, 2021. (KCNA via REUTERS. )

New satellite photos indicate that North Korea resumed operation of its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in July, raising again the specter of an unstable autocratic regime armed with nuclear weapons, a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency suggests.

While the country’s main plutonium-producing reactor was out of commission since December 2018, satellite images captured this year indicate the apparatus has been in use. One such warning sign includes the discharge of cooling water, according to the report, which was first noted by the Wall Street Journal.

The development presents another obstacle to the Biden administration as it seeks to achieve and maintain a denuclearized North Korea. While the nation produces highly-enriched uranium at other locations as well, Yongbyon has been historically significant and symbolic as a site within international nuclear negotiations.

The report adds that the agency has struggled to verify and monitor North Korea’s compliance with former declarations, severely limiting its knowledge of the nuclear program. But surveillance of the Yongbyon Experimental Nuclear Power Plant as well as the steam plant that serves the Radiochemical Laboratory revealed peculiar activity.

Ahead of the July restart of the 5-megawatt reactor, the steam plant operated for approximately five months, from mid-February 2021 until early July 2021, according to the report. This time frame ” is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel from the 5MW(e) reactor,” the agency reported. Five months is also far more time than is required for possible waste treatment or maintenance activities.

The renewal of North Korea’s nuclear program “is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” the report continues.

In its conclusion, the agency demanded North Korea fulfill its commitments under UN Security Council resolutions and practice transparency and collaboration to fully implement the Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement.

From 2006 to 2017, the UN adopted resolutions calling for North Korea to abandon its existing nuclear program in a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner,” as well as provide the agency with access to documents, information, equipments, facilities, and personnel as may be requested for enforcement protocol.

North Korea has largely not adhered to the requirements of these resolutions, the report states.

The country’s latest violation, renewing development at Yongbyon, comes after the state conducted two short-range projectile launches a few short months after President Biden assumed office, although they did not involve ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons.

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