North may be starting plutonium reactor

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North may be starting plutonium reactor

Pyongyang may be preparing to resume operations of its plutonium reactor for the first time since late 2015, 38 North, a website on North Korean affairs, said Wednesday.

Citing commercial satellite imagery collected from October 2016 to January 2017, the website wrote: “Stepped-up activities throughout the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center indicate that it is operating at a level of somewhat above what has been observed during the past five years and that may continue in the future.”

The exact implications of that activity, 38 North said, remain unclear.

“Throughout the previous four months, there has been a continued presence of vehicles at and around the 5MWe reactor suggesting ongoing maintenance, refueling or preparations for renewed operations,” said the report.

Steam exhaust, the main indicator that the reactor is switched on, was not observed at the reactor or its support buildings in any imagery from October through January, 38 North wrote, adding that a channel in the Taeryong River leading to and from the reactor’s cooling cisterns was cleared of ice and dredged between Dec. 1 and 29.

“This channel remains clear as of Jan. 16, although no water discharge is observed.”

If Pyongyang does restart the reactor, it would mean that the communist regime is trying to add to its arsenal of plutonium weapons, highlighting the failure of attempts by the international community to halt the program.

The 5MWe reactor is capable of producing 6 kilograms (13 pounds) of plutonium a year that can be used by Pyongyang to slowly increase the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile, the website mentioned in a different analysis.

In a biennial white paper released last week, the South’s Ministry of National Defense said North Korea appears to currently have 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, which is enough to produce around 10 nuclear weapons.

The stockpile was said to be 10 kilograms more than what the South believed Pyongyang had eight years ago.

The latest analysis from 38 North came just days before Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration in the U.S. It’s an old tactic for Pyongyang to ratchet up tensions near politically monumental days in South Korea or the United States to put pressure on foreign governments.

After Kim declared in a New Year’s address on Jan. 1 that he would test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) soon, South Korea’s Institute for National Security Strategy followed up by suggesting several dates that the North might choose.

One was Trump’s inauguration date, today.

A local military pundit said Wednesday that another possible time frame could be early March, when Seoul and Washington kick off their annual joint military drill, Key Resolve.

On Friday morning, Seoul, Washington and Tokyo kicked off a three-day “missile warning exercise” off their respective seas in preparation for a possible missile. The Korean Navy said Aegis-equipped destroyers from the three countries would be mobilized to practice spotting and tracing North Korean missiles under simulated situations.

The drill is the third of its kind.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]

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