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Asia

Speculations about North Korean nuclear plant

Has North Korea restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon? Satellite imagery revealed white steam coming from a building next to the plutonium reactor. South Korea says it is monitoring the events closely.

According to a report by "38 North," a website run by the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Maryland, the white coloration and volume of the steam are consistent with steam being vented because the electrical generating system is about to come online, indicating that the reactor is in or nearing operation.

South Korea reacted by saying it was monitoring developments. "There is no smoke without fire," Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told journalists. An unnamed government representative was cited as saying Seoul and Washington had already been closely following developments at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, especially after tensions between the two neighboring countries mounted in the spring.

File photo shows the demolition of the 30-meter cooling tower attached to North Korea's key Yongbyon nuclear complex on June 27, 2008. (Photo: Kyodo)

North Korea destroyed the reactor's cooling tower in 2008

The report comes at a time of apparently easing tensions on the Korean peninsula. The jointly operated industrial park, which has been closed for months, is set to reopen Mid-September. But André Richter, director of the Seoul office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation told DW the latest development did not come as a surprise. Pyongyang had already announced in April at the height of a surge in military tensions with the South that it would restart the plant, he said. This was also the time when the Kaesong site was closed.

Mixed signals

Richter believes the only surprising thing about the events unfolding in the nuclear facility is the timing. Furthermore, Richter points to the two seemingly opposing developments that are currently taking place on the peninsula. "On one hand, there seems to be an easing of tensions and on the other, Pyongyang is restarting the nuclear reactor - they might sound contradictory, but only at first glance."

North Korea has been implementing the so-called Byeongjin strategy, also known as parallel strategy, since the rule of Kim Il Sung (1948 to 1994). However, it only became an official policy at the end of March this year.

"The policy aims at improving the living standards and the economic situation of the impoverished nation, while at the same time focusing on national defense." The nuclear program is part of this strategy.

Stalled negotiations

According to Scientists at the John-Hopkins University in US, the Yongbyon nuclear plant can produce up to six kilograms of plutonium, which can be used by the Communist regime to expand its nuclear arsenal.

The five-megawatt reactor has not been in operation for the past six years. In June 2008, the North Korean government under the leadership of Kim Jong-Il had ordered the destruction of the plant's cooling tanks, thus fulfilling one of the conditions for the six-party talks that involved the US, Japan, Russia and China apart from the two Koreas. The negotiations, however, remain stalled since 2009.