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North Korean Nuclear Reactor Shows ‘Deeply Troubling’ Signs of Renewed Activity

Published: August 31, 2021
TOPSHOT - This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 3, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) looking at a metal casing with two bulges at an undisclosed location. (Image: AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS via Getty Images)

Satellite imagery has revealed that a nuclear reactor located in North Korea — widely believed to be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons — is showing “deeply troubling” signs of renewed activity. 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a recent report that it had first spotted activity at the 5-megawatt (MW) reactor just north of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in late 2018 and that recently it was showing signs of increased activity.

“Since the beginning of July 2021, there have been signs, including drainage of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor,” the report said. 

The reactor, known as the Yongbyon nuclear facility, is believed to be capable of producing multiple kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium every year.  

The Trump administration had previously attempted to  negotiate the demolition of the facility with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. At a 2019 summit in Vietnam with the then-U.S. President, Donald Trump, Kim offered to shut down and dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear site in exchange for relief from international sanctions over nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. 

Trump ultimately rejected the deal stating that the Yongbyon site was only a small part of North Korea’s nuclear program and was not enough of a concession. 

Kim Jong-Un has long touted his nuclear ambitions saying in January this year that he would seek “completely new nuclear capabilities aimed at attaining the goal of modernization of the nuclear force.”

Since 2006 there have been five North Korean nuclear tests detected with the most recent test occurring in 2017 which led the U.N. Security Council to demand that the country immediately abandon its nuclear program in a “complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.”

IAEA inspectors have not had access to the country since 2009 and have had to rely on commercial satellite imagery to conduct their assessments. 

Joshua Pollack, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies told Reuters,”There has been no agreement governing these facilities for a long time now,” adding that, “North Korea’s appetite for warheads is not yet sated, it seems.”