On Wednesday, the site said this indicates that “preparations for reprocessing spent fuel may be underway to extract the plutonium needed to make North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” but added that “this may also simply mean that the facility is being prepared to handle radioactive waste.”
Earlier this week, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi said that some nuclear facilities in North Korea continued to operate, pointing to the operation of the steam plant that serves the radiochemical laboratory in Yongbyon. The laboratory is a facility where plutonium is extracted by reprocessing the spent fuel rods removed from the reactors.
“The nuclear activities of the DPRK remain a source of grave concern.” Grossi told the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, according to the agency’s website: “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions, which is extremely regrettable.” The DPRK refers to the official name of North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Plutonium is one of the two main components for building nuclear weapons, along with highly enriched uranium. The Yongbyon complex, north of the capital, Pyongyang, contains facilities for producing both ingredients. It is not clear exactly how much weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium was produced in Yeonpyeong and where North Korea stored it.
External estimates differ on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In 2018, a South Korean official told parliament that North Korea may have 20 bombs for as much as 60.
US-led diplomacy aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic and political benefits has reached a stalemate since the collapse of the summit between President Donald Trump and Kim in early 2019. Trump has rejected Kim’s calls for widespread sanctions relief in exchange for their dismantling. The Yongbyon complex was seen in what was seen as a limited step to denuclearization because North Korea has already built nuclear weapons and is believed to be running other secret bomb-making facilities.
In January, Kim pledged to expand his nuclear arsenal and unveiled a host of high-tech weapons systems targeting the United States, saying that the fate of bilateral ties depended on whether Washington withdrew its hostile policy toward North Korea.
Some experts say Kim is trying to pressure President Joe Biden’s government to return to diplomacy and ease sanctions on the North.
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