Renewed activity ‘troubling’
North Korea appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor that is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, the UN atomic watchdog said in an annual report, highlighting the isolated nation's efforts to expand its arsenal.
The signs of operation at the 5-megawatt (MW) reactor, which is seen as capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, were the first to be spotted since late 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in its report dated Friday.
"Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation," the IAEA report said of the reactor at Yongbyon, a nuclear complex at the heart of North Korea's nuclear programme.
More plutonium could help North Korea make smaller nuclear weapons to fit on its ballistic missiles, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
"The bottom line is North Korea wants to improve the number and quality of its nuclear weapons," he added.
While intelligence on North Korean nuclear weapons is limited, making it impossible to know their number, Albright estimated the country had the capacity to produce material for four to six bombs a year.
The IAEA has had no access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009. The country subsequently pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons programme and soon resumed nuclear testing. Its last nuclear test was in 2017.