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North Korea has reopened plutonium plant: IAEA

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
An aerial view of North Korea’s main Yongbyon nuclear complex ©EPA

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says there are “indications” that North Korea has relaunched plutonium production from spent reactor fuel at a major nuclear facility near the country’s capital.

"Resumption of the activities of the five-megawatt reactor, the expansion of centrifuge-related facility, reprocessing, these are some of the examples of the areas (of activity indicated at Yongbyon)," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said at a news conference during a quarterly IAEA Board of Governors meeting on Monday.

Later in the day, an IAEA spokesman also said there are "indications the reprocessing plant at Yongbyon has been reactivated. It is possible that it is reprocessing spent fuel."

The UN nuclear watchdog, which has no access to North Korea, mainly uses satellite technology to monitor its activities.

In September last year, Pyongyang announced that Yongbyon had been restarted and was working towards improving the "quality and quantity" of arms which it could use against Washington at "any time."

North Korea’s main Yongbyon complex ©Reuters

The North had vowed two years earlier to reactivate Yongbyon and all other nuclear facilities.

Although plutonium in North Korea is widely believed to have been obtained from spent fuel at Yongbyon, little is known about the country’s ability to produce plutonium or weapons-grade uranium, and its stockpile of the two materials.

In April, 38 North, a website operated by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, reported signs of operations at the thermal plant of Yongbyon's main reprocessing installation.

Experts say that once Yongbyon becomes fully operational, it can produce around four kilograms of plutonium per year which is enough for a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb. 

This picture released from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 24, 2016 shows the underwater test-fire of a strategic submarine ballistic missile, which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hailed as an "eye-opening success", at an undisclosed location in the country on April 23, 2016. ©AFP

US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in February the North was capable of recovering enough plutonium believed to be sufficient for a nuclear bomb at Yongbyon. "We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor," he said.

According to Clapper, after its third nuclear test in 2013, the North announced plans to restart its Yongbyon nuclear complex after refurbishing it with a uranium enrichment facility.

"We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months," he said while addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee.

This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 13, 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C) attending a photo session with the participants in the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea at an undisclosed location. ©AFP

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said last month that Pyongyang would not use nuclear weapons unless it is threatened by a nuclear state.

“As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes,” Kim said while addressing a rare party gathering in Pyongyang. He also noted that the North would “faithfully fulfill” its non-proliferation obligations and called for further international denuclearization. North Korea left the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, becoming the first nation to withdraw from the treaty.

Pyongyang declared itself a nuclear power in 2005 and carried out four subsequent nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016. It has vowed to build up its nuclear program as deterrence against potential aggression from the US and its regional allies.

Pyongyang has been under UN sanctions over its nuclear tests and launching missiles considered by the US and South Korea as ballistic and aimed at delivering nuclear warheads.

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