Signs of the operations of the 5MW(e) reactor at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility have been captured by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In an annual report, the IAEA said the 5MW reactor that remained dormant since late 2018 are showing signs of operation starting from July 2021 such as discharge of cooling water. Reportedly, the North operated the Radiochemical Laboratory for five months to reprocess the spent fuel rods from the reactor into plutonium. Those activities point to the possibility that the North has renewed the production of plutonium, the core material for nuclear weapon.
Pyongyang’s decision to activate the reactor after a three-year hiatus reflects its intention to secure plutonium in addition to uranium. The operation of reactors also paves the way for securing tritium necessary for the fabrication of hydrogen bombs. This may signal the North’s gambit to neutralize the call for denuclearization from the international community by arming itself with ever more threatening weapons and flexing its military muscle as a nuclear state.
However, North Korea has showed off its intention for nuclear armament. A plutonium program run by operating rectors is more costly and less efficient in terms of production compared to uranium-enrichment programs. Yet, the North unabashedly broadcasted the renewal of operations when it is susceptible to exposure through satellite imagery. It was the communist regime’s typical mild provocation to escalate the level of threats towards Washington and defy the pressure for denuclearization at the same time.
The Yongbyon nuclear reactor has long been considered as a radioactive hazard. The Yongbyon facility has been used as a bargaining chip for economic compensation in various nuclear agreements, and Pyongyang even put on a show to bomb the cooling tower at Yongbyon. Back in 2019, the North demanded the lifting of America’s sanctions in exchange for the demolition of the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, including the reactor in question. Their latest move to reopen the reactor should be interpreted as an attempt to boost Yongbyon’s value as a bargaining chip.
Despite Washington’s repeated calls for dialogue, North Korea is not responding at all in an apparent intention to get concession first such as the alleviation of sanctions. The reactivation of the reactor must be Pyongyang’s strategy to put itself back on the list of Washington’s priorities by awakening the international community back to the need to open dialogues with the North. But there is little chance such gambit would pay off. America is urging the North to get back to the negotiation table unconditionally, making it clear that no empty promise would ever be compensated again. Washington is fed up with Pyongyang’s blusters.