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Satellite Photos Show North Korea Has Resumed Processing Nuclear Fuel, IAEA Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.N.'s atomic watchdog says a development in North Korea is, quote, "deeply troubling." The agency says North Korea has restarted its main reactor, which is a source of fuel for nuclear weapons. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, says in its annual report that North Korea appears to have resumed processing nuclear fuel at its Yongbyon nuclear plant in July. Its assessment is based on satellite pictures.

JEFFREY LEWIS: What I see is a jet of water shooting out from a pipe.

KUHN: Jeffrey Lewis has seen recent pictures of Yongbyon, too. He's a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.

LEWIS: What that is a sign of is that North Korea is cooling the reactor with water, which means it's hot, which means it's running.

KUHN: The IAEA says this is the first time Yongbyon is up and running since late 2018. The plant has previously been used to make weapons-grade plutonium. Park Won gon is a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. He says North Korea may have stopped production at Yongbyon to smooth the way for talks with the U.S.

PARK WON GON: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Kim Jong Un has expressed his willingness to denuclearize North Korea several times," he says. "So stopping plutonium production at Yongbyon was a way to show this willingness. But since 2019, there's been no advancement in denuclearization efforts." Park says North Korea wants to have the upper hand in future negotiations with the U.S., and it's traditionally tried to do this by flexing its military muscles.

PARK: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "Tests would, of course, be the most effective way for North Korea to show its nuclear capabilities," he says. "But it would be a very high intensity provocation. And North Korea doesn't have a technical need for that." The State Department says the IAEA report shows the need to get back to nuclear negotiations. But Pyongyang says it's not interested in talking. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lewis notes that Kim Jong Un has detailed in his speeches a list of new military capabilities he's working on, including smaller nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield.

LEWIS: If North Korea is going to build a large stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons to target U.S. forces throughout Asia, that's going to require more plutonium.

KUHN: North Korea, Lewis notes, has other sites making nuclear fuel. But if it wants to power its growing arsenal, Yongbyon is a logical place to start.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNTHETIC EPIPHANY'S "THE ART OF WAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.