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Satellite photo suggests North Korea is back to work on nuclear arsenal


WASHINGTON – A satellite image obtained by NBC News shows water leaking from a North Korean reactor, the latest sign the regime has resumed work that could allow it to build more nuclear weapons.

The satellite photo, from Planet Labs and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, appears to show a discharge of cooling water exiting the reactor into a channel leading to the nearby Kuryong River.

The commercial satellite photo, dated August 25, suggests that the regime intends to beef up its nuclear arsenal and is making no effort to conceal its activity in the Yongbyon plutonium reactor, said Jeffrey Lewis, program director of the Yongbyon plutonium reactor. non-proliferation in East Asia at the Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.

“The only reason this reactor works is to make nuclear weapons. The fact that it works means that they will increase their stockpile of nuclear weapons,” Lewis said. “They make nuclear weapons and they don’t care that we can see it.”

On Sunday, the International Atomic Energy Agency said there were indications that North Korea had resumed operations in the Yongbyon reactor.

The IAEA called the reactor’s resumption of operations “deeply disturbing”. The Wall Street Journal first reported the IAEA’s findings.

The Yongbyon reactor appears to have been inactive from December 2018 to early July 2021, according to the IAEA. But since the beginning of July, “there have been indications, in particular of cooling water discharges, compatible with the operation of the reactor,” said the IAEA.

The agency also said North Korea appeared to be using a nearby lab to separate plutonium from spent fuel previously removed from the reactor.

Signs of greater activity at Yongbyon come at a “dangerous” time, Lewis said, after Pyongyang announced plans earlier this year to develop shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons.

At a 2019 summit in Vietnam with then-US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle Yongbyon in exchange for lifting a series of international sanctions. But the United States rejected the proposal as insufficient to justify easing economic sanctions.

The Biden administration said it offered to hold talks with North Korea, but the regime rejected the offer, saying it would not negotiate without a change in Washington’s stance.

Ken dilanian contributed.