Analysts believe that high-level activity at North Korea’s primary nuclear site may show more plutonium is being produced for use in nuclear weapons.
Experts have seen new satellite images of the facility at Yongbyon which appears to show increased activity at two sites, one of which is the five-megawatt reactor that many see as North Korea‘s primary source of enriched plutonium, according to AFP.
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According to the US-Korea Institute at John Hopkins University, there could be a number of reasons for the movement. Analysts believe that renovation work may be underway, or workers may be replacing contaminated equipment.
Another possible scenario is that preparations are being made to unload spent fuel rods from the reactor, which will later be used for producing weapons-grade plutonium.
“If this explanation proves to be true it would represent an important step towards the further development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile,” read a post on the institute’s 38North website.
UN officials have also noted the increased activity at Yongbyon. “These appear to be broadly consistent with [North Korea’s] statements that it is further developing its nuclear capabilities,” said Yuikiya Amano, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, at a meeting of the IAEA board of governors in Vienna.
Worries over North Korea’s nuclear plans
North Korea shut down the reactor at Yongbyon in 2007 following an aid-for-disarmament accord, but renovation work started in 2013 after the nation’s last nuclear test. At full capacity the reactor can produce 6kg of plutonium annually, which is sufficient to make one nuclear weapon.
Analysts are worried that North Korea is closer to developing a long-range nuclear weapon than previously thought. Pyongyang carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
U.S. researchers recently released a report which claimed North Korea was planning to expand its nuclear program in coming years. They warn that if expansion does take place, Pyongyang could have as many as 100 atomic bombs at its disposal by 2020.
North Korea continues to work on its missile programs, and now has weapons capable of hitting any point in South Korea. The worry is that further technological advances will allow Pyongyang to threaten Japan and other Asian neighbors with nuclear strikes.
Can a deal be made with Pyongyang?
The recent agreement of a nuclear deal with Iran marked a victory for non-proliferation, although many fear that Tehran will continue to develop weapons in secret. However if international inspectors can ensure that work does not continue, the deal will mark significant progress in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
Although some may trumpet progress in Iran, North Korea has repeatedly signaled its utter lack of interest in negotiating a similar deal. Whereas Iran stands to benefit greatly from the lifting of economic sanctions, which will allow it to sell oil on the world markets once again, North Korea has apparently weighed up the benefits of reintegrating with the global economy and decided that it would rather keep its nuclear arsenal.
Previous negotiations with North Korea stalled and work on the country’s nuclear program has continued. As previously reported on ValueWalk, the Foreign Ministry spokesman has said that North Korea is “not interested at all in the dialogue to discuss the issue of making it freeze of dismantling its nukes unilaterally.”
Nuclear weapons and the threat of regime change
North Korean officials apparently see nuclear weapons as the best way to ensure the survival of the Kim regime. While investing huge sums in nuclear technology may not make much economic sense for a country with terribly low standards of living, it does allow elites to maintain their international status due to the threat of a nuclear strike.
Despite allegations of widespread human rights abuses, recent defectors from North Korea report that support for Kim Jong-un remains solid. One reason for this may be the tight control of information that enters and leaves the country, which allows officials to convince citizens that their country is highly-regarded in the international community.
Continued work on the country’s nuclear program may be one way for Kim Jong-un to prove his legitimacy to the older generation of officials, who were reportedly unimpressed by his inexperience. There are a number of motivations for North Korea’s continued nuclear research, but in conclusion it appears that the perceived positives of a nuclear arsenal outweigh the potential benefits of reintegrating with the world economy.
Although some reports of rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal may be exaggerated, the fact remains that North Korea is committed to its nuclear program and constitutes a threat to world nuclear security.