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IFANS Focus A Review of the 2021 IAEA DPRK Nuclear Activities Report and Its Policy Implications JUN Bong-Geun Upload Date 2021-09-14 Hits 131
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I. North Korea’s Recent Nuclear Activities in the IAEA Report
Ⅱ. Significance and Policy Implications of the IAEA DPRK Report 



I. North Korea’s Recent Nuclear Activities in the IAEA Report

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) issued a director-general’s report titled "Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea" on August 27th to cover developments in North Korea’s nuclear activities since the last report of September 2020. The Director-General’s report is issued to assess how “safeguards” – a set of technical measures applied by the IAEA on nuclear material and activities, through which the Agency seeks to verify that nuclear materials are not diverted from peaceful uses – apply to North Korea. The report is submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors and the General Conference. 
    
North Korea, however, has refused to allow IAEA inspectors to inspect its nuclear sites since the announcement of its complete withdrawal from the NPT in January 2003. For this reason, IAEA inspectors have been denied access to North Korea's nuclear facilities, let alone any physical inspections, over the past 20 years, and no safeguard measures have been applied in North Korea.  
    
But the Director-General’s report deserves attention as it covers the latest developments in North Korea’s nuclear activities. The IAEA’s assessment of the North’s nuclear activities and its nuclear policymaking can be summarized as follows.
    
First, as the Agency remains unable to carry out verification activities in the DPRK, its knowledge of the DPRK’s nuclear program is limited. As the North continues to expand nuclear activities, the Agency’s knowledge of the regime’s nuclear program is further declining. However, a DPRK Team was formed within the Department of Safeguards in August 2017 to enhance the Agency’s readiness once inspections resume. The Agency has continued to collect and analyze a wide range of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery to monitor the DPRK’s nuclear program, and continued to expand the Agency’s knowledge of the DPRK’s nuclear program including through 3D modeling of facilities. 
    
Second, the report sheds light on Chairman Kim Jong Un’s report on the work of the Seventh Central Committee of the Party at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea. According to his report, North Korea has already accumulated nuclear technology developed to such a high degree as to miniaturize, lighten and standardize nuclear weapons and to make them tactical ones and to complete the development of a super-large hydrogen bomb, and the design of new nuclear-powered submarine is in the stage of a final examination. 
    
Third, the report contains the details of nuclear activities observed at the Yongbyon site. There were no indications of 5MW(e) reactor operation from early December 2018 to the beginning of July 2021. However, since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor. The steam plant that serves the Radiochemical Laboratory operated for approximately five months, from mid-February until early July 2021. The five-month timeframe is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel from the 5MW(e) reactor. Earlier in 2003, 2005, and 2009, the DPRK announced that it had conducted reprocessing campaigns at the Radiochemical Laboratory, each of which had lasted about five months. The centrifuge enrichment facility, located within the Yongbyon Nuclear Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant, was not in operation, though regular vehicular movements were observed. The Light Water Reactor (LWR) did not show any signs of operation yet. Observations of activity near the LWR indicate that internal construction work continues. 
    
Fourth, there have been indications of ongoing mining, milling, and concentration activities at locations previously declared as the Pyongsan uranium mine and the Pyongsan uranium concentration plant. 
    
Fifth, the Agency detected signs of activity in a group of buildings within a security perimeter at Kangson, in the vicinity of Pyongyang. The construction of the Kangson complex took place before the construction of the centrifuge enrichment facility at Yongbyon, and the Kangson complex shares infrastructure characteristics with the centrifuge enrichment facility at Yongbyon. There were indications of ongoing activities at the Kangson complex during the reporting period. 
    
To summarize, first, during the reporting period, there were indications of the operation of the Radiochemical Laboratory for about five months in 2021. The lab has reprocessed the spent fuel from the 5MW reactor to extract plutonium. Second, since July 2021, there were indications consistent with restarting the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor in Yongbyon. Third, while the Yongbyon centrifuge enrichment facility was not in operation, there were indications of ongoing activities at the Kangson complex. Fourth, the Pyongsan uranium mine and the Pyongsan uranium concentration plant are in operation. This uranium-related activities suggest that enrichment activities continue to take place in the DPRK. 
    
The Director-General’s report concluded its overview of North Korea’s nuclear activities and the risks associated with those activities with the following comment: “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern. Furthermore, the new indications of the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor and the Radiochemical Laboratory are deeply troubling. The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”


Ⅱ. Significance and Policy Implications of the IAEA DPRK Report 

The assessment by the director-general of the IAEA has drawn attention to North Korea’s recent nuclear activities, fueling another round of debate over Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities and its motives. Below are my perspectives on some of the questions raised after the release of the IAEA report. 
    
For starters, do the recent North Korean nuclear activities included in the IAEA report constitute much-anticipated nuclear provocations toward the Biden administration? When President Biden was sworn in as the president of the United States earlier this year, some experts anticipated that North Korea would launch nuclear and/or missile tests provocations to draw the new U.S. administration’s attention and step up pressure to get concessions. Contrary to the expectations, North Korea has refrained from initiating provocations. Nevertheless, after the release of the report by the IAEA Director-General, some experts and media outlets jumped to the conclusion that North Korea has finally launched provocations. 
    
But I have different thoughts on this issue. I believe North Korea’s recent nuclear activities from the recent IAEA report are not like the military provocations the regime had repeated in the past against new US administrations. In fact, North Korea has a long history of launching nuclear and missile provocations around the time new U.S. administrations take power, in an attempt to gain leverage, draw attention and extract concessions. North Korea used to give prior warning to draw attention, flaring up tensions and stoking fears about a possible war. Ironically, a period of heightened tension oftentimes tends to stimulate nuclear negotiations and open up avenues for agreements between Washington and Pyongyang. 
    
It should be noted, however, that the reprocessing activities at Yongbyon and the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor, which took place in the first half of this year, proceeded quietly without any prior warning or threat from North Korea. In fact, throughout the first half of this year, the IAEA and NGOs warned of the possibility of such nuclear activities. But related governments did not pay much attention. 
    
Second, if that is the case, are recent developments in North Korea observed by the IAEA not worth our attention? To answer this question, we have to first look at the significance of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which was one of the contentious points that led to the so-called ‘Hanoi no-deal.’ The bottom line is, as the report says, nuclear activities at the Yongbyon site still pose serious security threats to all the related parties. Therefore, it should be an urgent priority for the U.S. to engage with North Korea to resume nuclear negotiations and to freeze and dismantle all weapons-related nuclear facilities in the North Korea as soon as possible. 
    
At the Hanoi summit, Kim Jong Un wanted the sanctions affecting the civilian economy lifted in their entirety in return for giving up and dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear complex. At that time, there was a heated debate in Washington over whether the U.S. should accept Kim’s offer. The Hanoi summit eventually collapsed as the Trump administration rejected North Korea’s offer of exchange, and nuclear talks between the two sides were stalled since then. Some analysts said the Yongbyon site was a ‘worthless pile of scrap metal,’ and this image of Yongbyon was cited as one of the reasons why Trump rejected the offer. Those analysts argued that the facilities at Yongbyon were to going be dismantled anyway, since the new North Korean nuclear weapons program was moving away plutonium to highly enriched uranium. 

But I disagree with this viewpoint. Most nuclear experts estimate that North Korea produces fissile material sufficient for five to six nuclear weapons annually. Resuming the operation of the 5MW(e) reactor will give the North enough plutonium for approximately one nuclear weapon annually. Also, it is believed that the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon is capable of producing enough highly enriched uranium for about two bombs annually. In addition, the Yongbyon nuclear complex is widely believed to have a facility that produces lithium-6 and tritium, isotopes critical to the production of thermonuclear (hydrogen) weapons. Given that the half-life of tritium is about 12 years, dismantling the Yongbyon site will have a significant impact on the production of hydrogen bombs and boosted fission bombs that North Korea aspires to build more. Besides, the dismantlement of the Yongbyon nuclear complex could be a highly symbolic denuclearization measure since it is the oldest and biggest nuclear research and development complex in North Korea. 
    
The IAEA report concludes that North Korea continues to operate its nuclear program even at this very moment and called on the international community to pay close attention to this issue and take action. Although the share of fissile material produced at the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea's total fissile material production has decreased to some extent, the facility still accounts for more than half of the production of fissile materials and produces tritium and other radioactive isotopes critical to the production of hydrogen bombs. The Yongbyon complex may look like a ‘worthless pile of scrap metal,’ but nevertheless it still produces a large amount of nuclear fissile materials for weapons and other materials needed to build hydrogen bombs. 
    
I hope the IAEA report raises alarm about the increasing risks associated with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. All related states should ramp up their best efforts that would help restart nuclear negotiations with North Korea and freeze its nuclear activities as a first-phase denuclearization goal. As the IAEA report suggests, if nuclear negotiations continue to remain deadlocked, Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow. Advancements in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will not only add difficulties to future nuclear negotiations but also increase the cost of the denuclearization. If we could reach a nuclear agreement with North Korea today even by providing some diplomatic and economic incentives, the cost of denuclearizing the North would still be cheaper today than it will be tomorrow.


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