South Korea’s government on Wednesday declined to directly confirm the reported resumption of plutonium production in North Korea but said it is “watching the relevant movements closely with serious concern.”
"It's a well-known fact that North Korea has been continuously pursuing various reprocessing activities to secure additional plutonium," Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon-hee told reporters. "There has been close coordination between South Korea and the United States on this issue."
Unnamed U.S. and U.N. officials say North Korea is again using spent nuclear fuel to process plutonium at the Yongbyon facility.
The director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amono, had said Tuesday there are indications of a resumption of the nuclear reprocessing.
Photographic evidence of increased activity
The comments from the officials and the IAEA follow reports of satellite imagery indicating activity at the Yongbyon facility, which was shuttered in 2007 as part of an international deal in exchange for aid which subsequently collapsed.
“North Korea is trying to put pressure on not only U.S. and South Korea, but also China, that if there won't be any early breakthrough in favor of North Korea in a meaningful dialogue and negotiation then North Korea will engage in further provocation,” Bong Youngshik, senior research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told VOA.
North Korea in 2013, announced it was restarting the graphite-moderated reactor and an uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon.
Until recently, analysts say, there was no concrete evidence the reactor was again fully operational.
The North, regarded as one of the world’s most repressive and isolated countries, conducted its fourth underground nuclear test in January, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb, and is attempting to extend the capabilities of its ballistic missiles, in defiance of various U.N. resolutions.
There has been significant speculation recently that North Korea is preparing a fifth nuclear test.
“Conducting another nuclear test I don't think that will really change China's attitude in favor of North Korea. It may even make the Xi Jinping government angry,” said Bong.
The Yongbyon five-megawatt reactor provided the North with the weapons-grade plutonium for its first three nuclear tests, starting in 2006.
The modest reactor’s fuel rods, according to experts, are capable of providing enough plutonium to make at least one bomb per year.
It is estimated that Pyongyang possesses at least 10 nuclear weapons but it has not demonstrated the capability to miniaturize them for placement on a long-range guided missile.