North Korea might be secretly extracting plutonium to make more nuclear weapons, new satellite pictures suggest.
Weeks after Kim Jong-un vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal, images show that a coal-fired steam plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex is back in operation after a two-year hiatus, The Sun reports.
The 38 North website, which specialises in North Korea studies, revealed that smoke was spotted coming from the plant at various times from late February and early March.
The website said this suggests “preparations for spent fuel reprocessing could be under way to extract plutonium needed for North Korea’s nuclear weapon”.
It added: “This could also mean simply the facility is being prepped to handle radioactive waste.
“While there were hints of a plume from the stack observed in May 2018, rarely has such clear evidence of the steam plant’s operation been observed,” the website said.
It comes after North Korea was branded as the biggest threat to the world by the Council on Foreign Relations last month.
RELATED: Experts warn of new North Korea security threat in 2021
The organisation placed North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests as the top-ranked conflict concern for 2021.
Plutonium is one of the two key ingredients to build nuclear weapons along with highly enriched uranium.
The Yongbyon complex, north of the capital city of Pyongyang, has facilities to produce both ingredients.
Earlier this week, International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Mariano Grossi said some nuclear facilities in North Korea have continued to operate, citing the operation of the steam plant that serves the radiochemical lab at Yongbyon.
The lab is a facility where plutonium is extracted by reprocessing spent fuel rods removed from reactors.
“The DPRK’s nuclear activities remain a cause for serious concern. The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” Mr Grossi told the IAEA’s board of governors.
It’s not clear exactly how much weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium has been produced at Yonbyong or where North Korea stores it.
Estimates on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal vary.
RELATED: North Korea lashes Australia on human rights
In 2018, a South Korean official told parliament the North may have anywhere from 20 to 60 nuclear bombs.
Pyongyang has unveiled two new weapons over the last few months, a new submarine-launched missile and North Korea’s biggest ever ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), the Hwasong-16.
In January, Mr Kim vowed to enlarge his nuclear arsenal and disclosed an array of hi-tech weapons systems targeting the United States.
The North Korean leader pledged to begin major expansion of the country’s nuclear capabilities, rigorous research into military technology and the production of a military reconnaissance satellite.
He said the fate of bilateral ties depends on whether Washington withdraws its hostile policy on North Korea.
Some experts think Mr Kim is trying to pressure US President Joe Biden’s government to return to diplomacy and ease sanctions on the North.
Attempts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits have stalled since a summit between Donald Trump and Mr Kim collapsed in early 2019.
RELATED: Russian diplomats escape North Korea pushing luggage on train tracks
Mr Trump rejected Mr Kim’s calls for extensive sanctions relief in return for dismantling the Yongbyon complex.
It was seen as a limited denuclearisation step as North Korea had already built nuclear weapons and it is believed to be running other covert bomb-making facilities.
The Biden administration said its review of North Korea policy will be finished in the coming months.
In his first major speech outlining Biden’s top foreign policy priorities, Secretary of State Antony Blinken focused on China yesterday, only mentioning North Korea as one of several countries that present “serious challenges”.
But analysts and former officials have said it would be a mistake to wait for North Korea to make the first move, such as a long-range missile or nuclear test.
“One key lesson we’ve learned over time is the longer we kick this can down the road, the more limited our options become,” the 38 North think tank said in a recent report.
Among the proposals being raised by experts are limited arms control arrangements in exchange for easing sanctions on Pyongyang and establishing better diplomatic ties.
This story was first published by The Sun and has been republished here with permission