North Korea nuclear reactor “nearing completion”
The Yongbyon nuclear reactor in North Korea is reportedly “one-to-two months” from completion according to a recent report by a US think-tank.
38 North, which is part of the US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University, produced the report after analysing satellite imagery of the site and concluded that North Korea is “making important progress in activating key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon” and that the country has “essentially finished repairing the cooling system necessary to restart and operate the reactor”.
The Yongbyon nuclear reactor was shut down in 2007 as part of a disarmament-for-aid agreement; the cooling tower was demolished a year later. Satellite imagery, however, showed there had been considerable recent activity at a shipment yard close by, with piles of construction materials visible on the site of the reactor and what could be a new drainage ditch.
Once operational Yongbyon could “produce approximately six kilograms of plutonium per year that can be used for manufacturing nuclear weapons,” the report says.
“North Korea may not be testing long-range missiles or nuclear weapons right now but its WMD program is moving ahead,” 38 North editor and former State Department official Joel Wit told the Associated Press. He continued: “The purpose of restarting the five megawatt reactor is crystal clear: the production of more plutonium for more bombs.”
On Tuesday, Kim Min Seok, a spokesman for the South Korean Defence Ministry, said that the one-to-two month estimate was “a bit too early” and that South Korea was also monitoring activity on the site. For the time being, progress is dependent on the availability of fresh fuel rods to power the reactor, something that the report says “remains unclear”.
The latest findings of 38 North could spark further tensions between North Korea and the United States. Indeed, Pyongyang threatened that it would restart the nuclear facility at Yongbyon in April at a time of significant regional tension after a third nuclear test conducted by North Korea in February led to further UN sanctions being imposed on the country.
The North Korean government has suggested on the state-run KCNA network that it will be promoting economic development alongside the military and national defence. North Korea’s aggressive rhetoric has diminished somewhat in the past month, but the country’s nuclear programme remains a key symbol of power and its zeal for nuclear weaponry is unlikely to abate under the current regime.