"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
Images Signal N. Korean Reactor Restart
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Kelsey Davenport

Satellite images indicate that North Korea is restarting a nuclear reactor that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons in the future, analysts say, but one of the analysts estimates it will be about 18 months before Pyongyang will have more plutonium available for weapons.

In a Sept. 11 piece published by 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Nick Hansen and Jeffery Lewis concluded that satellite images from Aug. 31 showed steam coming from a building near the reactor that was consistent in “coloration and volume” with bringing the reactor’s electrical generating systems online. The reactor is “in or nearing operation,” said Hansen, a former military imagery analyst, and Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

In April 2013, Pyongyang said it intended to rebuild and restart the reactor at its Yongbyon facility. Given the disabling of the reactor in 2007 and the destruction of the reactor’s cooling tower in 2008, it was unclear if North Korea would be able to operate the reactor. (See ACT, May 2013.) The reactor, built in the 1980s, provided North Korea with the plutonium that it separated for use in its nuclear arsenal, an amount estimated to be sufficient for six to 12 warheads.

Although the steam indicates that the reactor is restarting, the facility may not be fully operational. In a Sept. 20 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation, said that the initial steam “probably indicated a test” of the reactor. Fitzpatrick, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that, after six years of dormancy, the reactor will have to go through a “series of start-up tests” before normal operations begin. Imagery showing “successive days of steam” will prove that the reactor is operating, he said.

The reactor at Yongbyon was first shut down in 1994 as part of an agreement reached with the United States, under which Pyongyang was to freeze all nuclear activity and eventually eliminate its nuclear arsenal. In exchange, North Korea was to receive energy assistance in the form of fuel oil and light-water reactors, which are less proliferation sensitive than the heavy-water reactor at Yongbyon.

In 2002 the agreement broke down, and North Korea restarted the reactor. It operated until 2007, when Pyongyang shut it down and sealed it, as required under a 2005 agreement that was negotiated with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States during the so-called six-party talks that began in 2003. U.S. experts verified the disabling of the reactor in November 2007.

According to Fitzpatrick, it will be about 18 months before the “first new bomb-ready plutonium” is available. For North Korea to maximize plutonium production, irradiation of the reactor’s fuel should continue for about eight months before the spent fuel is unloaded, he said. It will then need to cool for at least six months before reprocessing. Fitzpatrick said that reprocessing takes about three months but there could be some disruptions because the reprocessing facility also has been dormant.

Yukiya Amano, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told the organization’s Board of Governors on Sept. 9 that he remains “deeply concerned” about North Korea’s nuclear activities. Amano said the agency’s knowledge of Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains limited because the IAEA has been unable to carry out any verification activities in the county since 2009.

Talks Remain Unlikely

The State Department declined to comment on reports of the reactor restart. But in a Sept. 13 briefing, spokeswoman Marie Harf said restarting would be a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and North Korea’s 2005 commitment to denuclearize.

The denuclearization agreement was part of the six-party talks that have been stalled since 2008 despite various calls by different states to revive the talks since then. On Sept. 18, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan called for the resumption of the six-party talks “without preconditions.”

The United States has repeatedly said that North Korea must take steps to demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization before negotiations resume.

Glyn Davies, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, reiterated that position during a recent trip to Japan. In Sept. 13 remarks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tokyo, Davies said that the North Koreans are trying to make the talks about “their right” to be a nuclear-weapon state, which the United States “cannot countenance.”

Davies, whose trip included stops in Beijing and Seoul, said denuclearization is the “most important issue” of the six-party talks for the United States.

Current U.S. policy toward North Korea also includes tightening sanctions and working with China to pressure North Korea to resume negotiations based on Washington’s preconditions.

Fitzpatrick said that although the reactor restart is a “prima facie case of U.S. policy failure,” a different policy might not have been any more successful. He recommended that, for now, the United States pursue a “quiet exploration of a return to the 2012 Leap Day deal.”

He was referring to a February 2012 U.S.-North Korean agreement under which North Korea accepted a moratorium on its nuclear and ballistic missile tests in return for food aid. (See ACT, March 2012.)

The agreement broke down when North Korea attempted to launch a satellite in April 2012. The United States maintained that the satellite launch violated the missile launch moratorium, while North Korea said it was permitted. (See ACT, May 2012.)

Illicit Trafficking Continues

North Korea also continues to flout UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting the import and export of conventional weapons.

According to new accounts, UN inspectors found that the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean ship detained by Panama on July 15, was carrying a variety of small arms and light weapons. At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing Sept. 26, Chairman Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) said that “small arms and light weapons ammunition, rocket-propelled grenades, and artillery ammunition for anti-tank guns” were part of the shipment.

After the ship was seized, it was found to be carrying large weaponry systems, such as MiG aircraft. Havana said the weaponry was to be repaired in North Korea and sent back to Cuba. UN Security Council resolutions ban the export or import of weapons by North Korea. (See ACT, September 2013.)

Hugh Griffiths, who heads the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s project on illicit trafficking, said that “only a very small proportion” of North Korean violations are detected. In a Sept. 22 e-mail, he said that a wide range of companies may be “inadvertently involved” in violations of the sanctions on imports and exports because they do not have the “capacity to recognize risk indicators.” Seizure of the North Korean ship’s cargo was unusual, Griffiths said, because only a few states have the “awareness and capacity to know what constitutes a vessel or voyage of proliferation concern.”

Panama originally detained the ship because it was suspected of trafficking drugs.

Griffiths said that a “major issue” is the difficulty that UN member states have in working out how to share classified information with the United Nations. This results in an “information deficit” on monitoring and sharing information about North Korean ships or flights that pose a proliferation concern, he said.

Griffiths said that it is necessary to keep the option of further sanctions on the table. He said that North Korean-owned vessels and aircraft are often used to transfer prohibited items to and from North Korea, so “designating these assets at a later stage could be a potent form of leverage.”