Satellite images indicate that North Korea has restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and is once again producing plutonium for its atomic weapons programme, a move that analysts suggest is a “political manoeuvre” designed to put more pressure on South Korea for the recent outbreak of détente to succeed.
Images obtained in late February show activity at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Centre, including at the plant’s 5-megawatt reactor, and the deployment of what appears to be more military units at the site.
“A steam vapour plume was observed at the 5 MWe reactor on imagery from both February 17 and 25,” analysts reported on the 38 North web site, which is run by the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Similar plumes have in the past “generally been a useful indicator of reactor operations”, the report adds, although they have usually been accompanied by the discharge of coolant water into a nearby river, marked by the melting of ice and snow.
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While that is absent at present, they said, it is likely that the outfall pipe has been extended further into the river.
Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, has exchanged angry threats with Donald Trump, his American counterpart, for months ratcheting up fears of an armed confrontation between the two nuclear armed states.
However, the Winter Olympics in South Korea has brought a cooling of tensions on the Korean peninsular and hope that a political breakthrough is possible.
“If the reactor is operating again, as the evidence suggests, it means North Korea has resumed production of plutonium presumably for its nuclear weapons programme”, the report concludes.
“Of course this is cause for concern, although they have hinted that they might reactivate the reactor”, Rah Jong-yil, a former head of South Korea’s intelligence agency told The Telegraph.
The role of additional troops at Yongbyon is not clear, the report said, although they may be undertaking new construction work or providing additional security.