Why North Korea is reheating its nuclear programme

Published : September 01, 2021 18:17 IST

For years, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has used nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip. Photo: AP

Analysts say cash-strapped Pyongyang is returning to its strategy of trying to obtain concessions from the international community by threatening nuclear proliferation.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog described the resumption of operations over the weekend at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor as "deeply troubling."

In its new annual report on North Korea's nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stated that while monitors have not been granted access to the Yongbyon site, there are "indications" that the five-megawatt reactor is once more producing plutonium for the first time since December 2018. 

According to the report, there were "indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor" in early July. It concluded that the the North's nuclear activities, "continue to be a cause for serious concern" and are "deeply troubling."

"The continuation of the DPRK’s (The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable," it said, adding that the IAEA called on Pyongyang to comply with U.N. resolutions. 

Images captured from satellites also show that the steam plant for the radiochemical laboratory was also operational in the first half of the year, and that milling and concentration activities are ongoing at the Pyongsan uranium mine and the associated fabrication plant.

What is North Korea planning?

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, says North Korea has a number of reasons for resuming production of fissile material. The global coronavirus pandemic has made life within the nation's sealed borders even harder than in past years, prompting the regime to seek concessions from the international community.

"Despite the incredible stress North Korea's economy and society are suffering under self-imposed pandemic isolation, the regime of Kim Jong Un pushes forward with its nuclear programs," Easley told DW. "As the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is focused on the coronavirus and Afghanistan, Pyongyang may be looking to create another crisis in an attempt to extract benefits," he added. "It would be better for everyone if North Korea skipped the provocation cycle and accepted humanitarian assistance and resumption of dialogue," Easley added.

Toshimitsu Shigemura, an expert on North Korean affairs and professor at Tokyo's Waseda University, says Pyongyang is desperately seeking Washington's attention now that the US involvement in Afghanistan is over.

"Biden has been completely preoccupied with coronavirus and Afghanistan and has been less interested in Korean affairs, so Kim is maybe feeling a little overlooked," he told DW. "Indications that they are starting to once again make more nuclear warheads — is guaranteed to get the attention of the U.S."

Concerns over nuclear proliferation

Daniel Pinkston, a former deputy project director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, warned that North Korea may be planning to sell nuclear technology or completed weapons.

The North's economic problems, brought on by international sanctions but exacerbated by the regime's decision to close borders to trading partners due to COVID, mean that the country is desperate for money that it needs to survive, said Pinkston, who is currently a lecturer of international relations at Troy University in Seoul. 

Pinkston said his "biggest worry" over the resumption of processing activities at Yongbyon is an elevated possibility of nuclear proliferation. "North Korea has allocated an immense amount of its limited resources to this program for many, many years so they are not walking away from it any time soon," he told DW.

"The North is estimated to have somewhere between 50 and 60 warheads, so adding one more warhead to that stockpile does not have much meaning. What difference will one extra nuclear bomb have?" Pinkston said, adding that the North's "biggest problem right now is economic." "They may be looking for states that have no nuclear weapons at the moment and for whom a single warhead would therefore be very significant," he said.

South Korea and U.S. seek negotiations

Seoul’s top nuclear envoy Noh Kyu-duk arrived in Washington on Sunday for discussions with his U.S. counterparts on ways to encourage North Korea to return to talks. On August 30, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters that the U.S. is continuing to seek negotiations with North Korea on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

The North has largely ignored previous efforts to engage since Biden was sworn in as president in January. There has been no response from Pyongyang to the latest offer to negotiate.