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N. Korea Appears to Have Reactivated Yongbyon Nuclear Facilities: IAEA


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In a report released on August 27, the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA said that there were indications of the operation of the 5-megawatt reactor and the radiochemical laboratory at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in North Korea. The laboratory is a spent fuel reprocessing plant. The IAEA issues an annual report about North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. The U.N. nuclear watchdog has monitored North Korea’s nuclear facilities through satellite imagery since its inspectors were expelled from the country in 2009. The recent IAEA report shows that the Yongbyon nuclear reactor appears to be back in operation in two and a half years. 

Here is Cho Han-bum, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, with more. 

The Yongbyon nuclear complex has uranium enrichment buildings, the 5-megawatt reactor, spent fuel reprocessing facilities as well as a facility that extracts tritium. According to the latest IAEA report, North Korea seems to have reprocessed spent fuel rods there from February to early July this year and the nuclear reactor may have restarted operation in July. 

North Korea started constructing nuclear facilities in Yongbyon in the 1960s and the 5-megawatt reactor began operation in earnest in 1986. The dismantlement of the Yongbyon facilities has been cited as one of the key denuclearization measures since the eruption of the North Korean nuclear crisis. 

After reaching the Geneva Agreement in 1994, North Korea froze the 5-megawatt reactor. The country also promised to shut down the reactor in 2007 in line with the agreement made at the six-party nuclear talks. North Korea even blew up the reactor’s cooling tower in 2008. 

Afterwards, the Yongbyon nuclear facilities repeated operation and suspension until they were again put on the negotiation table at the second North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi in 2019. 

As North Korea’s main nuclear facilities, the Yongbyon complex is capable of producing three key nuclear materials—highly enriched uranium, plutonium and tritium. There were no indications of the Yongbyon reactor operation from December 2018 until early July this year. That means North Korea wanted to continue with nuclear negotiations with the U.S. by halting operations. 

At the Hanoi summit, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facilities on the condition that the U.S. would lift some sanctions against the North. But former U.S. President Donald Trump wanted North Korea to dismantle the Yongbyon complex AND highly enriched uranium facilities as well. Due to the difference in opinion, the Hanoi summit collapsed. 

North Korea suspended the operation of the Yongbyon nuclear facilities during the years of the Trump government. Under the Biden government now, the North seems to have reactivated the facilities.

Pyongyang is well aware that the international community is closely monitoring Yongbyon through satellites. Then, why did the country expose movements there? Many analysts say that North Korea is pressuring the U.S., which is showing no signs of resuming talks with the North, even while stressing unconditional dialogue. 

North Korea hopes to negotiate with the Biden government, again over Yongbyon. By showing that it can continue to produce nuclear materials in Yongbyon, the North highlights the usefulness of its main nuclear complex and urges the U.S. to come to the negotiation table quickly. Amid the protracted nuclear talks between the North and the U.S., Pyongyang is using Yongbyon as a means of pressuring Washington. 

Meanwhile, South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk held talks with U.S. special representative for North Korea Sung Kim in Washington D.C. early this week, a week after they discussed humanitarian aid for North Korea in Seoul on August 23. At the latest meeting, the two officials said they would be waiting for North Korea’s reply, mentioning the possibility of humanitarian assistance. The meeting reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to a diplomatic solution through dialogue when it comes to North Korea-related issues. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also said that the recent IAEA report underlines the need for dialogue and diplomacy for the sake of complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. 

North Korea demands that the U.S. lift sanctions first, while the U.S. says that sanctions relief should come later as a result of negotiations. With both sides refusing to budge, the U.S. now offers to provide humanitarian aid to the North. But for North Korea, that’s not enough. 

Following its military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. may focus more on other diplomatic issues. It may seek to make up for diplomatic loss from the Afghan issue by breaking the North Korean nuclear deadlock. 

Regarding the IAEA report, China has reiterated its position that it is necessary to adopt a parallel approach to resolve Korean Peninsula issues. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Monday that China hopes relevant countries will find an effective and balanced solution to each other’s interest, based on paralleled developments and the principle of phased and simultaneous measures. 

China consistently advocates a parallel approach, in which North Korea and the U.S. should proceed with denuclearization talks and the conclusion of a peace treaty at the same time. That is, China calls for the U.S. to take corresponding action by lifting sanctions for North Korea’s denuclearization measures. Clearly, China’s position is closer to North Korea’s. 

But it doesn’t mean that China agrees on North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. That’s because a nuclear-armed North Korea may lead to “a nuclear domino effect” that could provide other Asian countries like Japan and even Taiwan with a pretext to have their own nuclear weapons. Essentially, China believes North Korea should denuclearize itself. But it still maintains a circumspect stance in consideration of the relations with its communist ally. 

Showing signs of resuming the operation of the Yongbyon facilities, the heart of North Korea’s nuclear programs, implies that the Yongbyon issue may emerge as one of the major factors to influence North Korea-U.S. negotiations and their relations. 

Yongbyon is still useful as a negotiation card. But even if North Korea dismantles the Yongbyon complex, it has additional nuclear material production facilities. As Trump refused to settle for the Yongbyon issue, Biden is also likely to move beyond it and demand more at future negotiations with North Korea. But Pyongyang wants to reach an agreement on Yongbyon only. 

North Korea will likely take low-intensity steps for the time being as a negotiation strategy. The South Korea-U.S. combined military exercises are not really an obstacle of the negotiations. I guess North Korea simply wanted South Korea and the U.S. to make some concessions or show sincerity on the occasion of their joint exercises. At present, North Korea suffers from various difficulties and hopes to reach a compromise at negotiations. But it wants the U.S. to negotiate only over the Yongbyon issue and not proceed further. The two sides are in a tug-of-war over Washington’s reciprocal measures and an early-stage agreement.

Following the report about North Korea’s reactivation of its Yongbyon nuclear facilities, regional diplomacy is growing more volatile. With those facilities becoming a new factor to affect the negotiations involving North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea, we’ll have to monitor North Korea’s additional move more closely. 

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