U.N. Agency Calls North Korea’s Nuclear Activity ‘Cause for Serious Concern’

People watch a television news screen showing file footage of a North Korean missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on August 29, 2017. Nuclear-armed North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean on August 29 amid tensions over its weapons ambitions
AFP/JUNG Yeon-Je

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Rafael Grossi told his organization’s board of governors on Monday that North Korea’s recent nuclear activities are a “cause for serious concern.”

Grossi was particularly alarmed by activity at a radiochemical laboratory that could indicate dictator Kim Jong-un is reprocessing spent nuclear reactor fuel to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons.

“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” Grossi said. DPRK is the abbreviation for “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the North Korean regime’s preferred name for itself.

The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency pointed to a facility called Kangson in the town of Chollima-guyok, just outside North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang, where the IAEA sees “ongoing indications of activity … consistent with the time required for a reprocessing campaign at the radiochemical laboratory.”

Grossi added that since North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors in 2009, the agency has no way to confirm precisely what is happening at the Kangson facility. 

Analysts believe Kangson was designed to produce Uranium-235, which is useful for manufacturing nuclear warheads, although former IAEA deputy director Olli Heinonen said in December that Kangson “appears to lack the infrastructure” for uranium enrichment and might be intended to produce uranium-enrichment centrifuges that would be operated elsewhere.

In his quarterly presentation to the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors, Grossi said North Korea’s most notorious nuclear research facility, the 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, has been fairly quiet in recent weeks. 

Satellite images in March showed steam rising from the radiochemistry laboratory at Yongbyon and its adjacent thermal plant. Analysts worried these plumes of steam meant North Korea was restarting nuclear reprocessing at Yongbyon. Grossi’s report on Monday suggested this could have been a bluff by the North Koreans, in concert with provocative missile tests conducted around the same time, or they might have decided to shift reprocessing operations to Kangson for some reason.

In an April 30 interview with North Korea watchdog group 38 North, Stanford University’s Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker postulated the Yongbyon facility is having serious technical problems with its cooling system, possibly as a consequence of having been shut down clumsily in 2018, and might not be capable of producing spent fuel that can be harvested for plutonium or tritium until repairs are completed. Hecker suspected another facility might be attempting to extract weapons-grade material from years-old stockpiles of spent Yongbyon fuel, although he was skeptical the Kangson plant could serve that purpose. 

The IAEA and other analysts have observed construction activity at Yongbyon in late May that suggests a new laboratory is under construction and work on an experimental light-water nuclear reactor continues.

South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh noticed last week that North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) deleted the “two-track” strategy of “building the economy and building a nuclear arsenal” from the latest edition of its rulebook. Instead, the WPK resolved to “build the economy under the banner of self-sufficiency and strengthening the material-technical base of socialism” while it “ceaselessly reinforces the national defense.”

Hankyoreh interpreted this as a “clear shift in focus from the military to the economy,” producing a strategy where nuclear weapons development is no longer seen as a paramount objective on par with economic development, although the WPK did not indicate any plans to dramatically scale back or completely abandon its quest for nuclear missiles. 

“The deletion of the two-track line from the WPK’s new rules could be seen as laying the groundwork for giving Kim more options in his nuclear diplomacy with the US, which could involve trading denuclearization for a lifeline and security guarantee for his regime,” Hankyoreh suggested. 

Another possibility more consistent with the “serious concern” expressed by IAEA director Grossi is that Kim Jong-un is feeling the pressure of sanctions applied resolutely against North Korea for years, and found it necessary to back away from his mad dash to the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile finish line to focus more attention on his country’s moribund economy, but he wants to continue emitting visible signals that his regime remains a serious nuclear threat with cards to play at the international bargaining table.

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