Yongbyon reactor seems to be idle, says IAEA

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Yongbyon reactor seems to be idle, says IAEA

North Korea may have stopped using its main atomic reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear complex long enough to allow refueling, according to a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which stressed the country’s continuing nuclear activities remain a “serious concern.”

The report, submitted to the IAEA’s Board of Governors ahead of the agency’s general conference this year, said there were no indications that the North’s 5-megawatt reactor - which is believed to have produced the majority of the plutonium used for the country’s weapons - had operated since last December.

According to the IAEA’s observations, the reactor “been shut down for a sufficient length of time for it to have been de-fuelled and subsequently re-fuelled,” the report read.

As the centerpiece of the regime’s nuclear plant in Yongbyon, North Pyongan Province, the 5-megawatt reactor is known to be capable of producing around seven kilograms (15.4 pounds) of plutonium annually, enough to make at least one bomb. On two earlier occasions since the late 1990s, the North agreed to shut down the reactor - even going as far as to demolish a cooling tower at the complex - but negotiations went sour.

The facilities at Yongbyon, which also include a radiochemical laboratory - a de facto plutonium reprocessing center - a nuclear fuel rod fabrication plant and an incomplete separate light water reactor, were the subject of the regime’s most recent negotiations with the Donald Trump administration leading to a failed summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, last February.

The IAEA’s observations from a report published in August showed that regular operations at the 5-megawatt reactor had been reduced to “intermittent” activities from August 2018, shortly after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump met for their first summit in Singapore that June.

Since December, no activities have been observed at the reactor, the report read.

When the two leaders met for a second time at Hanoi in February, Kim offered to dismantle portions of the Yongbyon complex in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions on the North. This proposal was rebuffed by the U.S. side, which, in the words of U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, wanted the dismantlement of more nuclear facilities in the country “beyond Yongbyon.”

In spite of the failure in Hanoi, the IAEA’s observations showed Pyongyang has not departed from its scaling down of nuclear activities, though it also noted signs that “activities at some other facilities continued or developed further.” In particular, the fuel rod fabrication plant in Yongbyon showed indications of renovation and construction work, as well as “possible chemical processing taking place,” while building activities also appear to have resumed at parts of the light water reactor and areas around the nearby Kuryong River, the report said. A further note was made about ongoing mining, milling and concentration activities possibly taking place at the country’s Pyongsan uranium mine and the adjacent uranium concentration plant in North Hwanghae Province.

In a summary of its findings, the IAEA said the “continuation of [North Korea]’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
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