North Korea has stopped operating its nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon complex, a move that could indicate its intention to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons, according to a South Korean news report.
Yongbyon Reactor Halted Since Late September
The report, published by the Donga Ilbo newspaper on Thursday, cited a government source who said that the 5 megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex has been suspended since late September, based on the intelligence assessment by the US and South Korean authorities.
The source said that South Korea and the US believe this could be a sign of reprocessing work being done to obtain weapons-grade plutonium, a key ingredient for building nuclear bombs. Reprocessing of spent fuel rods removed from a nuclear reactor is a step taken before plutonium is extracted.
The Yongbyon nuclear complex is the North’s main source of plutonium that it likely has used to build nuclear weapons. Independent estimates of the North’s plutonium range as high as 70 kg, which could be enough to build 20 or more weapons.
North Korea May Be Preparing for Another Nuclear Test
The report also quoted a senior government official who said that the possibility of a nuclear test by North Korea is not ruled out, without elaborating on what analysis pointed to the assessment that the move may be related to a nuclear test.
North Korea has conducted six underground nuclear tests and there have been concerns since last year that it may be about to conduct another test as part of a programme to develop miniaturised nuclear warheads.
North Korea’s parliament adopted a constitutional amendment last week that reaffirmed its policy on the use of nuclear force and leader Kim Jong Un has stepped up calls for the country to boost production of nuclear arms and to diversify its nuclear capabilities.
North Korea Also Has Uranium Enrichment Facilities
Apart from plutonium, North Korea also has uranium enrichment facilities, which is a separate source of material that could be used for nuclear weapons. The status of these facilities is not clear, as they are not subject to international inspections.
North Korea claims itself a nuclear state but has kept how many nuclear weapons it may have built or deployed a secret. It has also rejected any talks on denuclearisation, saying that its nuclear arsenal is a deterrent against US hostility.
North Korea has been under strict UN sanctions for its nuclear and missile activities, but it has shown no signs of giving up its ambitions. It has also been engaged in diplomatic tensions with South Korea and the US over issues such as human rights, cyberattacks and military exercises.