Why did North Korea restart its nuclear reactor? – The diplomat


In a report published on Friday by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there are indications, among other things, of a restart of the reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear power plant, a symbol of North Korean nuclear power. However, the report mentioned that the IAEA has not been able to confirm detailed information on the operational status and key features of the facilities in Yongbyon, as the North has not allowed the watchdog to inspect its facilities since 2009.

Consistent with the IAEA report, 38 North, a program run by the Stimson Center to analyze North Korean problems, also released a report using commercial satellite imagery, suggesting that operations at the 5 MWe reactor at the Yongbyon Nuclear Power Plant are likely to have resumed. The report noted that much of the evidence observed was also a key indicator of previous reactor operation, but added that there was no steam coming from the generator building during reactor operation, which is unusual compared to previous observations.

The US and South Korea closely control movements from the north. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Washington was aware of the IAEA report. “The report underlines the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so that we can achieve full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” said Psaki.

Under President Joe Biden, the White House introduced its new “calibrated and practical approach” to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Sung Kim, the US special envoy for North Korea, has repeatedly made it clear that he is ready to sit down with his North Korean counterparts anytime, anywhere, without any preconditions. Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, has warned the US and South Korea that their “hostile” policies and actions against Pyongyang should be halted for the time being.

Given recent reports from the IAEA and 38 North, there are concerns that the North has returned to its old-school diplomacy – and reactivated its “bad guy” approach to take control of negotiations with its peers. Signs of a restart of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor represent a pragmatic tactic by the North to take the lead in all future negotiations with the United States.

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Lee Jong-seok, South Korea’s former reunification minister, told the Korea Global Forum for Peace on Tuesday that the resumption of operations at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was “a provocation outside of the promises made to the United States” and implied that North Korea would not meet its previous commitments has hurt. Lee also pointed out that the background to this reboot may be related to Northern concerns that the US may revert to “strategic patience” mode, which could ultimately result in the North continuing to develop missile programs under devastating economic sanctions.

The Yongbyon nuclear site by no means represents the entirety of the north’s nuclear capabilities. It has long been clear that the country’s nuclear activities can also be continued outside the Yongbyon area. Hence, the reboot can be more of a symbolic way of sending a message to the world.

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Andrei Lankov, professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and director of the Korea Risk Group, told The Diplomat that the importance of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor to the North Korean nuclear and missile program is significant, but by no means crucial.


“Even if it is completely destroyed or dismantled, North Korea’s ability to manufacture nuclear weapons will decline, but only to a relatively minor extent,” Lankov said.

Experts estimate that the Yongbyon nuclear site accounts for around 70 to 75 percent of the North Korean nuclear program. However, Lankov indicated that the program has migrated to highly enriched uranium (HEU) processed outside of the Yongbyon area. The Yongbyon reactor produces plutonium.

“In the past 10-15 years, the North Korean nuclear program has shifted from the use of weapons grade plutonium to the use of highly enriched uranium on a large, but precisely unknown, scale. therefore that [Yongbyon] Nuclear reactor is essentially a thing of the past, ”said Lankov.

USA focuses on China, not North Korea

Meanwhile, Biden gave a speech in the White House on Tuesday – his focus was not on North Korea, but on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. His speech did not mention “North Korea” but indicated that his government will focus on dealing with superpowers like China and Russia.

“The world is changing and the US is now in serious competition with China,” said Biden. He also said the US is facing challenges from Russia on several fronts.

The Biden government is currently focused on strengthening its alliances and partnerships with countries in Asia to counter China’s influence under the Indo-Pacific strategy. In this context, North Korea fears a return to the Obama era, when it struggled with economic sanctions without much opportunity to sit down with its US counterparts.

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Circumstances – and US politics – have changed dramatically since 2018 and 2019, when North Korea engaged in active dialogue with South Korea and the United States for the first time since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un came to power after his father’s death in 2011 .

There were high hopes that North Korea could take effective denuclearization steps under deals with the US if the summits between Kim and then-US President Donald Trump go well. The Hanoi Summit in 2019 was the key moment to build a strong relationship between the two countries and make progress on denuclearization. However, Trump chose to leave the summit without an agreement – a strategic move shaped by his background in business negotiations.

Although Biden administration officials have repeatedly made it clear that they are ready to meet with North Korean officials, the US agenda in East Asia has changed since the Trump era, and North Korea knows it. In return, Kim decided to leverage Washington by promoting North Korea’s missile programs, as officially announced at the Workers’ Party’s eighth congress in January.


Given the complex diplomatic circumstances facing the Biden administration, Washington may want to focus fully on maintaining the status quo – no nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing – from the north. However, North Korea tested two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan as early as March. Further indications of a “strategic patience” attitude from Washington could lead to serious military provocations from Pyongyang in the future, with the aim of attracting US attention.

Increase the stakes

As the dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang has stalled, the two Koreas are accelerating their arms race. The whole world has seen the result of the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Observers in South Korea are concerned about what could happen if US interest in the Korean Peninsula wanes amid the urge to confront China and Russia, not North Korea.

“I think the US pulled out of Afghanistan because it was a distraction, especially from realigning its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region to contain China,” said Go Myong-hyun, senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul said in an interview with The Diplomat.

“I think North Korea falls under the same heading as Afghanistan from President Biden’s point of view,” Go added.

In a press release released Thursday by the South Korean Ministry of Defense, the ministry said it would develop “stronger, longer-range and more precise missiles to deter deterrence and achieve security and peace in the Korean peninsula.” The possible deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea could arise again to protect the country from the north. The idea has already been advocated by experts and conservative hawks who believe that Kim Jong Un can only be induced to give up his nuclear weapons through a “tit-for-tat” approach to nuclear weapons.

Washington has a deeply rooted view that North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons through diplomatic negotiations, as Pyongyang has repeatedly called for recognition by the international community as a nuclear weapon state. The US is likely to maintain its current deterrent attitude towards North Korea, which should theoretically lure the North back to the negotiating table. But North Korea has survived sanctions and countless economic crises for decades.

The two parties keep making unreachable proposals – “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization “(from the USA) vs. recognition as a nuclear state (from North Korea) – turning the negotiations into a chicken game. And the stakes are rising, as the Yongbyon restart shows.

North Korea is now preparing to hold a military parade in the coming months based on satellite imagery, according to NK News, a Seoul-based website that provides news and analysis on North Korea.

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