The world nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said North Korea’s nuclear programme is continuing despite United Nations sanctions and remains “a cause for serious concern” as negotiations on denuclearisation stalled for more than two years.
“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director-general told a news conference after a meeting with the Vienna-based agency’s board of governors.
Grossi added that the IAEA was intensifying its readiness “to play its essential role in verifying North Korea’s nuclear programme”.
North Korea last conducted a nuclear test in 2017 and the following year said it had blown up tunnels at its main nuclear test site at Punggye-ri, claiming that was proof of its commitment to end nuclear testing.
But since that self-declared moratorium, Kim Jong Un, who marks 10 years as leader in December, has called for the continued production of nuclear weapons, launched a series of smaller missiles and in January, promised to put “state defence capabilities on a much higher level” as he unveiled what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile.
IAEA inspectors are not allowed into North Korea, but they have been monitoring activity in the country via satellites and other available information.
Grossi said there was evidence of continuing construction and that a cooling water facility at an experimental light water reactor had been tested at the end of last year, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.
There were also signs that North Korea had been operating a thermal plant at the Yongbyon complex that could be used to provide heat to a nuclear fuel rod reprocessing facility, Yonhap said.
Yongbyon has nuclear reactors, fuel reprocessing plants and uranium enrichment facilities that have been linked to the country’s nuclear weapons programme.
Talks on denuclearisation have stalled with the North demanding an end to sanctions and the US insisting Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons.
Independent sanctions monitors said last month that North Korea had maintained and developed its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes throughout 2020, helping fund its activities with some USD $300 million stolen through cyber-hacks.