One step forward, two steps backA commercial U.S. satellite imagery shows steam being vented from North Korea’s 5-megawatt Yongbyon nuclear complex. The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies said the satellite picture, taken Aug. 31, suggests that the North’s first nuclear reactor, capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, was in operation or nearly so.
The Yongbyon reactor complex was shut down in compliance with the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework in 1994. It was reactivated in 2003 and closed again in 2007 after an aid-for-disarmament pact was agreed in the six-party talks.
North Korea demolished the reactor’s cooling tower the following year to manifest its commitment to the pact. But in April, North Korea announced that it would restart the Yongbyon research reactor for nuclear deterrence.
It would be a violation of multiple resolutions of the UN Security Council if North Korea reactivated the nuclear weapons manufacturing facility.
The move would also deal a blow to China, which has been trying to revive the six-nation talks to denuclearize North Korea.
Tensions around the Korean Peninsula over North Korea’s nuclear threat will likely escalate, splashing cold water on recent positive developments in inter-Korean relations: the re-opening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and plans to resume reunions of separated families and tourism at Mount Kumgang.
The International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. government said the reports are yet to be confirmed and declined to comment on intelligence matters. Russia and China also remain silent.
The Korean government, however, through its defence spokesman, said the reports were plausible. Since North Korea announced the revival of its nuclear development program in April, Pyongyang has been moving and building cooling pumps at the complex to replace the destroyed cooling facility. The cloud of steam naturally raises suspicions that the reactor is in operation.
As U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies told reporters, if the reports turn out to be true, it would be a very serious matter. Seoul may have to re-examine relations with Pyongyang. North Korea must explain quickly. If it did revive its nuclear activities, it must stop them immediately. It must renew its commitment to denuclearization. If it leaves suspicions hanging, it gives Seoul and other governments few choices.
After a series of military provocations, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un sent Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae to Beijing in May as a special envoy to deliver the message that Pyongyang was ready to return to the six-party disarmament talks. It also recently turned active in improving inter-Korean relations.
But if it has also been restarting its nuclear weapons program, North Korea must expect dire consequences.