North Korea Restarts Yongbyon Reactor

Because Afghanistan and Hurricane Ida weren't enough for the Biden administration to deal with.

WSJ (“North Korea Appears to Have Restarted Yongbyon Nuclear Reactor”):

North Korea appears to have resumed operation of its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon in a move that could enable the reclusive country to expand its nuclear-weapons arsenal, the U.N. atomic agency said.

The development, disclosed in the agency’s annual report on North Korea’s nuclear activities, adds a new challenge to President Biden’s foreign policy agenda, alongside the dangerous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and stalemated talks on restoring the 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Since early July, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor,” said the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Yongbyon reactor appeared to have been inactive from December 2018 until the beginning of July 2021, the report noted. It added that signs that the reactor is now being operated coincide with indications that North Korea is also using a nearby laboratory to separate plutonium from spent fuel previously removed from the reactor.

The agency, whose inspectors were kicked out of North Korea in 2009, described the twin developments as “deeply troubling” and a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

[…]

During then-President Donald Trump’s 2019 meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, the North Korean side offered to shut its Yongbyon complex, encompassing the reactor and other facilities, in return for major sanctions relief. The Trump administration rejected that offer as insufficient.

“The recent inactivity of key facilities at Yongbyon seems related to Kim Jong Un’s offer at the Hanoi summit to shut down Yongbyon,” said Robert Einhorn, a former senior State Department official who negotiated with North Korea. “Resumed operations at the reactor and reprocessing facility may be an indication that he sees little prospect of a nuclear deal.”

There’s lots of talk from experts in the piece recommending unspecified measures. And the Biden team is signaling that it will pursue “a ‘calibrated’ strategy that would attempt to steer a middle course between former President Trump’s top-level summitry and the Obama administration’s patient stance.” That strikes me as more rhetoric than strategy. And I don’t mean that as a criticism.

It’s never been clear to me what a “deal” would look like. The Kim regime has long, not unreasonably, seen its nuclear program as the only thing giving it international credibility. What we could possibly offer in return for them giving up their existing stockpiles, development capacity, missile program as well as agreeing to acceptable verification measures is not obvious. International sanctions have been devastating but the regime seems willing to let its people starve.

FILED UNDER: National Security, North Korea, North Korean Nuclear Program
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Because Afghanistan and Hurricane Ida weren’t enough for the Biden administration to deal with.

    And the Delta covid surge.

    It’s never been clear to me what a “deal” would look like…… the regime seems willing to let its people starve.

    I don’t think there is a deal to be had.

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  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    OK, here’s my suggestion for a plan.

    First, we should shock and awe them. Then we should invade, but only with a bare minimum force in no way capable of dealing with the aftermath. Nevertheless we should occupy NK and vow to make it a functioning democracy. To this end we should pour a few trillion dollars into the pockets of corrupt opportunists with no political base in North Korea. And, at the same time, we can spend a few trillion more training starving NK’s from villages where the entire GDP was a single goat, to rely on 60 million dollar jets and 100 thousand dollar missiles.

    I’d guess it’ll take about 20 years, then we can leave in the certainty that we accomplished absolutely nothing.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: No flaws detected in that plan.

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  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    The endgame to NK is likely 2 choices, live with an increasingly powerful, but chaotic, nuclear state, with the attendant risks or nuke them first.

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  5. Kathy says:

    IMO, it’s far more likely this or other Kim will use nukes against his own people than against the US or Japan.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Absolutely. We should do what we’re good at.

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  7. Raoul says:

    This is the plan: have a third party intermediary buy nuclear fission materials from North Korea, have mentioned third party sell the goods to Iran after processing. Israel will then attack the North Korean nuclear facility. Voila!

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  8. Mu Yixiao says:

    I have to wonder if we’re going the wrong direction on this.

    Kim thrives on attention. Every time we lay down another punishment, he gets to stand in front of his people and say “See how much they fear us!” He doesn’t care if it’s killing his people and keeping his country a century and a half behind the rest of the world.

    Perhaps the way to go is to give him a seat at the “kids table” and make him look like he has some input into the world–something he can show to his people–in exchange for opening up and letting some sort of progress happen.

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  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Funny you should mention goats. A Canadian charity that my church in Korea used to support provides soymilk producing devices called (IIRC) nutra cows and nutra goats depending on the volume of milk the area will benefit from having. Apparently many areas would love to have a goat, let alone a cow. North Korea is arguably the poorest nation in the history of civilization. The sad part is that it doesn’t need to be. It was better situated to industrialize at the end of the Korean war than the South; the Kims just decided that a hereditary kleptocracy would be a better idea.-

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Perhaps the way to go is to give him a seat at the “kids table” and make him look like he has some input into the world–something he can show to his people–in exchange for opening up and letting some sort of progress happen.

    I think this is the right answer. The problem is to do this effectively we need to accept that North Korea is a nuclear state and will remain so. And that is something that, so far, the American government is fundamentally unwilling to do (regardless of which political party is in control).

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: “in exchange for opening up and letting some sort of progress happen.”
    Unless NK (i.e. Kim and/or whoever can advise him) are open to a repudiation of Juche (literally alone/by ourselves, as I recall reading) philosophy and practice, I don’t see that this good idea can happen.

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  12. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    China took a similar turn under Deng Xiaoping. And… I’m quite sure that Kim could flip a switch on the propaganda machine to say “See! We have outlasted them! We won!” and everyone would accept it (along with the food, medicine, and farm implements that came along with it).

    The key (as I see it) would be to not tell Kim how to rule his country, just that it has to be open to XYZ.

    @mattbernius:

    I think this is the right answer. The problem is to do this effectively we need to accept that North Korea is a nuclear state and will remain so.

    Gods forbid we acknowledge reality.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @Raoul: We would need to give Israel a carrier, I think. Also, can we fund the Contras with this plan?

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  14. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Gustopher:

    Also, can we fund the Contras with this plan?

    The Contras are so out of fashion. The hip new retro cause are the Mujahideen. Get with the program!

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: From your lips to God’s ears. Yes, it would work, but I don’t see that NK is China, nor is Jong-eun Deng. But if it is and he is, there’s a potential there.

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  16. rachel says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    the Kims just decided that a hereditary kleptocracy would be a better idea.-

    The wanted to take the country back to how it was at the end of the Chosun Dynasty, caste system and all, but the people at the top were the Kims.

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  17. Matthew Bernius says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Gods forbid we acknowledge reality.

    God, unfortunately, has very little to do with that decision.

    ReplyReply

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