Surveillance imagery suggests that North Korea has reactivated a plutonium processing plant used for developing nuclear weapons, reported the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday, echoing recent claims by US-based think tanks.
"The indications that we have obtained are of activities related to the five-megawatt reactor, expansion of enrichment facilities and activities related to plutonium reprocessing," said IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, during a press conference in Vienna.
"However, as we do not have inspectors on the ground we are only observing through satellite imagery. We cannot say for sure, but we have indications of certain activities through the satellite imagery," he noted.
Specifically, the satellite imagery details vehicle movement, steam discharge, and materials transport consistent with the plutonium enrichment process. The type of plutonium used for nuclear bombs needs to be extracted from spent nuclear reactor fuel which requires substantial amounts of water to cool the radioactive fuel rods.
The development means that North Korea may be closer to stockpiling nuclear weapons than international analysts originally believed. The Yongbyon reactor was deactivated in 2007 under an aid-for-disarmament agreement, but the truculent regime of Kim Jong Un moved to renovate the plant after its third nuclear test in 2013. The regime carried out a fourth test on January 6.
Director of US National Intelligence, James Clapper, warned several months ago that North Korea could recover weapons-grade plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel in "a matter of weeks to months" once the facility is placed back online.
Pyongyang has faced universal condemnation in recent months after accelerating development of nuclear weapons and delivery systems capable of reaching as far as the US mainland. In May, North Korea claimed it had successfully miniaturized nuclear warheads, a necessary step to allow a weapon to be carried by an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Western analysts say that North Korea lacks the ability to place a warhead on the US coast, and questions the precision of their short and mid-range missiles for use against South Korea and Japan.
However, some weapons experts believe that Pyongyang may have more advanced weapons-delivery systems than conventional pundits suggest, citing the fact that North Korea’s ballistic missile tests have focused on specific components of the delivery system, in an effort by the regime to maintain the secrecy of their weapons capabilities.
Pyongyang’s recent violent rhetoric and nuclear systems advances correspond with an expansion of joint US-South Korean war games and activities near the North Korean border. Kim Jong Un has called the military exercises a dress rehearsal for a full scale invasion, a sentiment exacerbated by frequent flyovers by US nuclear armed B-2 and B-52 bombers.