The Koreas

Why Did North Korea Restart Its Nuclear Reactor?  

Recent Features

The Koreas | Security | East Asia

Why Did North Korea Restart Its Nuclear Reactor?  

The reported restart of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is likely a bid for attention at a time when the United States is more focused on China’s rise.  

Why Did North Korea Restart Its Nuclear Reactor?  
Credit: Depositphotos

In a report published on Friday from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, of resumed operation of the reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear site, a symbol of North Korea’s nuclear power. The report, however, mentioned that the IAEA could not confirm detailed information regarding the operational status and main features of the facilities at Yongbyon, as the North has not allowed the watchdog to inspect its facilities since 2009.

Consistent with the IAEA report, 38 North, a program of Stimson Center dedicated to analysis of North Korea issues, also published a report with commercial satellite imageries suggesting that operations at the 5 MWe reactor in the Yongbyon nuclear site have likely restarted. The report noted that much of the evidence observed has also been a key indicator of reactor operations previously, but added that there was no steam coming from the generator building when the reactor was operating, which is unusual compared with past observations.

The United States and South Korea are closely checking the movements from the North. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday that Washington is aware of the IAEA report. “The report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Psaki said.

Under President Joe Biden, the White House introduced its new “calibrated and practical approach” to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, has repeatedly made clear that he is willing to sit down with his North Korean counterparts anytime, anywhere, without preconditions. However, Kim Yo Jong, sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, has warned the U.S. and South Korea that their “hostile” policies and acts against Pyongyang should be halted first.

With the recent reports by IAEA and 38 North, there is concern that the North has returned to its old-school diplomacy – reactivating its “villain” approach to take control in negotiations with its counterparts. Signs of a restart at Yongbyon nuclear reactor represent a pragmatic tactic by the North to seize the leading position in any the future negotiations with the United States.

Lee Jong-seok, South Korea’s former minister of unification, said on Tuesday in the Korea Global Forum for Peace that the resumption of operations at Yongbyon nuclear complex is “a provocation outside of the promises made with the United States,” implying that North Korea has not violated its previous commitments. Lee also pointed out that the background for this restart may be related to the North’s concern that the U.S. could move into “strategic patience” mode again, which could ultimately lead the North to continue developing missile programs under devastating economic sanctions.

The Yongbyon nuclear site by no means represents the totality of the North’s nuclear capability. It has long been clear that the country’s nuclear activities can be continued outside the Yongbyon area. Thus the restart may be more symbolic, intended to send a message to the world.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul and a director of 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 decisive.

“Even if it is completely destroyed or dismantled, North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear devices will diminish but only to a relatively small extent,” Lankov said.

Experts estimate that the Yongbyon nuclear site represents approximately 70 percent to 75 percent of North Korea’s nuclear program. However, Lankov pointed out that the program has shifted to a reliance on highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is processed outside the Yongbyon area. The Yongbyon reactor produces plutonium.

“In the recent 10-15 years, the North Korean nuclear program, to a large but exactly unknown extent, has switched from the use of weapons-grade plutonium to the use of highly enriched uranium. Therefore, the [Yongbyon] nuclear reactor is essentially a thing of the past,” Lankov said.

U.S. Focuses on China, Not North Korea

Meanwhile, Biden made a speech at the White House on Tuesday – but his focus was not on North Korea, but on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. His speech made no mention of “North Korea,” but implied that his administration is going to focus on dealing with superpowers such as China and Russia.

“The world is changing and the U.S. is now engaged in a serious competition with China,” Biden said. He also said that the U.S. is dealing with challenges on multiple fronts from Russia.

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

Circumstances – and U.S. policy – have changed dramatically since 2018 and 2019, when North Korea actively engaged in dialogue with South Korea and the United States for the first time since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s death in 2011.

There were high hopes that North Korea could take effective steps toward denuclearization under agreements with the United States if the summits between Kim and then-U.S. President Donald Trump went well. The Hanoi Summit in 2019 was the key moment to build a strong relationship between the two countries and make progress toward denuclearization. However, Trump decided to walk out of the summit with no deal – a strategic move informed by his background in business negotiations.

Even though Biden administration officials have repeatedly made clear that they are willing to meet with North Korean officials, the U.S. agenda in East Asia has changed since the Trump era, and North Korea knows it. In turn, Kim decided to gain leverage against Washington by advancing North Korea’s missile programs, as was made official at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party in January.

Given the complex diplomatic circumstances that the Biden administration is facing, Washington may want to fully concentrate on maintaining the status quo – no nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile test – from the North at the moment. However, North Korea already tested two ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan in March. Further indications of a “strategic patience”-type stance from Washington may cause serious military provocations from Pyongyang in the future, with the goal of winning U.S. attention.

Raising the Stakes

With dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang stalled, the two Koreas are accelerating their arms race. The entire world has witnessed the outcome of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Observers in South Korea are worried about what might happen as U.S. interest in the Korean Peninsula declines amid the push to confront China and Russia, not North Korea.

“I think the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan because it became a distraction, particularly from refocusing its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region to contain China,” Go Myong-hyun, a senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, said in an interview with The Diplomat.

“I believe North Korea falls into the same rubric as Afghanistan from President Biden’s standpoint,” Go added.

In a release published by the South Korean Defense Ministry on Thursday, the Ministry said it will “develop stronger, longer-range and more precise missiles to exercise deterrence and achieve security and peace on the Korean Peninsula.” The potential deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea may arise again as a way to protect the country from the North. The idea has been championed before by experts and conservative hawks who believe the only way to entice Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons is to take a “tit-for-tat” approach with nuclear weapons.

Washington has a deep-rooted perception that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons through diplomatic negotiations, as Pyongyang has consistently demanded to be recognized as a nuclear weapons state by the international community. The United States is likely to keep up its current deterrence posture against North Korea, which is theoretically supposed to entice the North back to the negotiating table. North Korea has survived sanctions, and countless economic crises, for decades, however.

The two parties keep putting forward unachievable proposals — “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” (from the U.S.) vs. recognition as a nuclear state (from North Korea) — turning the negotiations into a game of chicken. And the stakes are increasing, as shown by the Yongbyon restart.

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