North Korea’s nuclear reactor restart was likely inevitable, an expert says

North Korea will likely restart its nuclear reactor over and over again, regardless of which presidential administration is in office, an expert for the region told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported at the end of August that North Korea had restarted a plutonium-producing 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon in July 2021, after it had previously been shut down in 2018.

Bruce Klingner, Senior Research Fellow on Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF that while it is unclear whether the restart timing should send a message, North Korea likely plans to put the reactor back on track for a while.

“They do that regularly,” said Klingner, describing how North Korea occasionally shuts down reactors to extract the fuel rods.

“The decisions that led to the restart of the reactor in July 2021 are unlikely to be a response to North Korea’s immediate external environment this year – or the Biden government’s policy towards Pyongyang,” wrote Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow in Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

Panda argued that the reactor would inevitably have to be restarted after the US refused to lift all sanctions against North Korea at the Hanoi summit in February 2019. “In mid-2019, the political conditions for a restart of the Yongbyon reactor were in place,” he said.

Natural disasters along with a pandemic-induced slowdown in the country’s national defense activities likely meant that the reactor restart was delayed until 2021, Panda wrote.

With the reactor back in operation, North Korea’s current level of production of nuclear material is likely to be the same as it was in “the first two years of the Trump administration,” Klingner said.

Biden’s government has reached out to North Korea to resume talks, but the country largely failed to respond, Reuters reported. Even if it is always important to have a dialogue, said Klingner, the US should not reduce the pressure on the regime.

“Every administration, Bush, Obama, Trump, claimed that they enforced sanctions and US laws consistently, and all of them did not,” Klingner said. “The US has tried a number of different initiatives. All of them failed to achieve denuclearization diplomatically. “

Klingner said it was also important for the US to maintain its commitment to allies in the region such as South Korea and Japan by keeping American troop levels in the countries at their current levels.

California Republican MP Young Kim, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the DCNF that Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was a “botched” operation that has “undermined confidence in American global leadership.”

She said it was important to “reassure South Korea that we will not withdraw our US troops from South Korea and continue joint exercises” without “giving in to North Korean pressure”.

As one of the first Korean American women to be elected to Congress, Kim reaffirmed US commitment to South Korea during a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We will be there … to give our voice and be your lawyer. And please trust us. America can lead and we will lead again and show that we can get out of these difficult challenges, ”she said.

California Democratic MP Ami Bera, chair of the Asia, Pacific, Central Asia and Non-Proliferation Subcommittee, agreed with Kim during the panel. He described South Korea as a “completely different country” with which the US had a “long geopolitical, strategic relationship”.

“We must have heard from Koreans whether Korea is like Afghanistan. And I think the US is right to point out that there are considerable differences between Afghanistan and our support for allies in NATO as well as in South Korea and Japan, ”said Klingner.

Klingner noted that the Biden administration did a good job of strengthening partnerships with East Asian allies after it was damaged under the Trump administration.

“Trump viewed allies as transactional relationships rather than the traditional US view of alliances,” he said. “Biden has reverted to the traditional, bipartisan, long-standing US view of alliances based on shared values, principles and goals rather than his moneymaking operation.”

“That is a long way to go to reaffirm the US commitment to our allies,” added Klingner.

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