The Pentagon expressed concern on Tuesday about a UN report indicating possible reprocessing of nuclear fuel for bombs by North Korea, and said such activity could raise tensions with Pyongyang. Rear Admiral Michael Studeman, head of intelligence for the US Indo-Pacific command, said North Korean activity highlighted this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could be intended to get the attention of the Biden administration and as a bargaining chip to press for sanctions relief. The administration is currently reviewing US-North Korea policy.
Mr Studeman told an virtual event on technology and security: “We have our eye on this.
“And it is deeply concerning where North Korea wants to go.”
In a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors on Monday, the United Nations body’s director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, made reference to activity at North Korea’s Yongbyong and Kangson nuclear facilities.
He said there had been recent indications of the operation of a steam plant that serves a radiochemical laboratory.
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North Korea has used its radiochemical lab at Yongbyon to reprocess plutonium from a reactor there for nuclear bombs.
Mr Grossi called North Korea’s continued nuclear activity a clear violation of UN sanctions and “deeply regrettable.”
Mr Studeman said: “the IAEA board of governors issued a notice that there had been evidence of the Koreans reprocessing perhaps nuclear fuel.
“If that is true, then that could put us into a different level of tension with Korea,” he said.
A confidential UN report seen by Reuters last month said North Korea developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programs throughout 2020.
Jenny Town, deputy director of the Washington-based North Korea monitoring project 38 North, told Reuters satellite images it had received of Yongbyon from February 17 and March 2 showed steam coming from the laboratory there, which had not been known to be in operation for about two years.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that reprocessing has started, but it could be an indication of preparations for that,” she said.
North Korea uses both uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons, but the latter allows for smaller, lighter bombs.