North Korea’s Nuclear Activities


Michael Brändli

Credit: Michael Brändli on Unsplash

Paul Siebert


North Korea is operating its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor again, and by doing that, they are completely ignoring the resolutions it has signed with the United Nations (UN). The UN has been trying to speak with North Korea concerning the usage of nuclear weapons and other nuclear devices. How close is the situation to escalating and why has North Korea, presumably, started operating the reactor again will be clarified in this article. 

The happenings

North Korea will be referred to as the DPRK in this article. This abbreviation stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. So, what exactly did the DPRK do? After the nation started doing nuclear tests in 2006, the UN Security Council, for the first time since the 1990s, adopted resolutions concerning the DPRK again. These included that the DPRK had to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner. The DPRK was also obliged to provide the Agency with transparency measures. The DPRK has not abandoned its existing nuclear program in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner or ceased all related activities since nor have they provided the transparency measures they were obliged to provide. 

The DPRK team within the Department of Safeguards has noticed movement and an overall buzzy atmosphere around a radiochemical laboratory from mid-February to early-July 2021. The agency says that the steam plant was operated. The 5-month long operation is significantly longer than the operations observed in the past during possible waste treatment or maintenance activities and it is consistent with the time required to reprocess a complete core of irradiated fuel from a 5 MW(e) reactor. (A megawatt is equal to 1,000,000 watts) This is the first indication of reactor operating the agency has been able to observe since December 2018. Since early July 2021, the DPRK has also started operating a 5 MW(e) reactor again. The reprocessed core of irradiated fuel mentioned above is most likely used in this reactor. This exact reactor is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. 

Furthermore, the DPRK has continued internal construction at its Light Water Reactor (LWR). The Department of Safeguards has observed activity near the LWR,  including deliveries of materials and the presence of construction vehicles. The agency can not estimate when the reactor could become operational because it doesn’t have enough information.

Why does the DPRK even hold on to its nuclear program so tightly? Well, the DPRK sees its nuclear program as essential to regime survival–serving to deter a U.S.-led invasion. A report delivered by Kim Jong Un in January 2021 makes this even more obvious. In the report, he said that “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.” He also continued by saying he has “plans for… launching in real earnest into the founding of the nuclear power industry to cope with the long-range demands and the subjective and objective changes in the future.”

How dangerous is this?

The DPRK now has more nuclear weapons than ever before, and several Intelligence officials of the US have stated that DPRK no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. While the goal is complete denuclearization, the UN knows that it probably won’t be able to achieve that in the near future. Eric Brewer, who worked on the national security council under former US president Barack Obama, said that the US could try to persuade the DPRK to agree to restrictions on its delivery systems for nuclear weapons in return for substantial relief from economic sanctions or it could sanction the DPRK even more. It could, for example, sanction Chinese banks which are working with the DPRK. The US and the UN have several options but none of them are bound to work as the DPRK does not seem to react to any of the sanctions so far, so all diplomatic options must be further pursued. 

What has the UN been doing?

The matter of the Application of Safeguards in the DPRK has been discussed by the Board of Governors of the UN on the 27th of August 2021. Safeguards agreements ensure that all nuclear activity a state undertakes is for peaceful purposes and that a state is not engaging in illicit nuclear activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is the independent organization charged with applying safeguards. 

In September 2008, IAEA Director General El Baradei reported to the Board that the DPRK had asked the IAEA to remove seals and surveillance from the reprocessing plant in Yongbyon. The work was subsequently done, after which no more IAEA seals and surveillance equipment were in place at the reprocessing facility. The DPRK stated that IAEA inspectors would have no further access to the reprocessing plant. Since then, the Agency has not had access to the Yongbyon site or to other locations in the DPRK. Without such access, the Agency cannot confirm either the operational status, the configuration/design features of the facilities, locations described in this section, or the nature and purpose of the activities conducted there. As a result, the IAEA has tried to apply safeguards in the DPRK again, but the agency was not successful. 

Now, in its annual report, the IAEA stated that “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.”

Furthermore, the Director General continues to call upon the DPRK to comply fully with its obligations under relevant UN Security Council resolutions, to cooperate promptly with the Agency in the full and effective implementation of its NPT Safeguards Agreement, and to resolve all outstanding issues. In its annual report, the IAEA also mentions that, even though the agency currently doesn’t have any safeguards equipment or agents in the DPRK, the DPRK team, which was formed in August 2017, continues to maintain its enhanced readiness to return to the DPRK and to strengthen its ability to play its essential role in verifying the DPRK’s nuclear program. 

This maintaining of enhanced readiness, among other things, includes the following activities:

Continuing to collect and analyze a wide range of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery, maintaining equipment and supplies necessary to ensure that the agency is prepared to promptly initiate verification and monitoring activities in the DPRK, and using 3D modelling of facilities to document the DPRK’s nuclear program. 


In conclusion, it can be said that the DPRK is currently dangerous and that the UN and IAEA will have to find a way to get the DPRK to comply fully with its obligations by abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner, as well as providing the Agency with transparency measures soon. As mentioned above, they have several different possibilities which might not work and which could all, in a worst case scenario, end really badly. So for now, it is all up to the UN and IAEA to find a solution to this.