South Korea’s Defense Ministry said Thursday it was “closely monitoring” a North Korean nuclear reactor after reports emerged of its temporary suspension, potentially to extract weapons-grade plutonium.
Intelligence sources in Seoul and Washington detected signs that the five-megawatt reactor at the Yongbyon laboratory temporarily shut down operations in late September, South Korean daily Donga Ilbo reported Thursday.
“South Korean and US intelligence services are closely monitoring movements on this issue,” Defense Ministry spokesman Jeon Ha-kyou told reporters when asked about the press reports.
The suspension could indicate that spent fuel rods are being reprocessed to extract plutonium for use in nuclear weapons, according to the newspaper, which cites a government source.
Located about 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang, the Yongbyon site is home to the country’s first nuclear reactor and the only known source of plutonium for North Korea’s weapons program.
Pyongyang last week enshrined its status as a nuclear state in its constitution and its leader Kim Jong Un stressed the need for more modern nuclear weapons to counter perceived threats from the United States.
North Korea has carried out a record number of missile tests this year despite international sanctions, ignoring warnings from the United States, South Korea and their allies.
Attempts at mediation have repeatedly failed and the prospect of Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear program appears to be receding.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, and its sixth, most powerful, in September 2017. Observers have growing concerns that it may be preparing for another test as North Korea attempts to develop nuclear weapons. tactical nuclear warheads.
A report released this year by the U.S. Congressional Research Service estimated that North Korea already had enough material for “20 to 60 warheads.”
North Korea is actively pursuing the development of smaller warheads to accommodate various launch systems, according to this source.