International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Director Rafael Grossi on Monday issued dire warnings while delivering remarks at the UN watchdog's quarterly meeting of its 35-nation Board of Governors.
Grossi reported that the agency, which has been shut out of North Korea since Pyongyang expelled inspectors in 2009, has seen indications that the country may be reprocessing spent fuel in order to glean plutonium that can in turn be enriched for use in nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang has continued to pursue its nuclear ambitions since that time and detonated its last nuclear device in 2017.
The IAEA has been forced to resort to satellite imagery to make its assessments of the North Korean nuclear program but Grossi says it has observed steam at a reprocessing lab: "The steam plant that serves the Radiochemical Laboratory has continued to operate since my last statement to the board in March. The duration of this operation is consistent with the time required for a reprocessing campaign." He emphasized that it is "not possible to confirm that reprocessing is taking place."
Grossi confirmed that the IAEA believes North Korea shut down its Yongbyon reactor — thought to have produced plutonium for weapons — back in December 2018, but he cautioned that the IAEA has seen "ongoing indications of activity" at Kangson, just outside the capital Pyongyang.
An issue of trust with Iran
In Monday's meeting, Grossi also said that work with the Islamic Republic of Iran was "becoming increasingly difficult." He referred specifically to an insufficient temporary workaround between IAEA inspectors and the Iranian government that provided a three-month temporary inspection agreement for the agency despite Tehran having greatly reduced access to its nuclear sites since February.
Of the current agreement, which ends on June 24, Grossi said, "I can see this space narrowing." Speaking of speculation that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA — better known as the Iran nuclear deal — could still be revived after the US withdrew from it in 2018 and reinstated harsh sanctions, Grossi said he hoped current talks would not lead to a further curtailment of inspections, "We cannot limit and continue to curtail the ability of the inspectors to inspect and at the same time pretend that there is trust."
In retaliation for the US withdrawal and the reimposition of sanctions, Iran has been ignoring limits on its nuclear activities as stipulated in the agreement.
Grossi also spoke of the IAEA's a long-running attempts to clarify the role of several undeclared Iranian sites where nuclear activity may have taken place, mostly in the early 2000s. Though "technical discussions" were launched in April in an effort to "break the impasse" over the sites, Grossi said the IAEA's "expectations were not met."
Diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, are hoping to conclude talks on reviving the 2015 JCPOA deal, which began in April, before Iran's presidential election on June 18.
The watchdog told governors, "For me the road to trust goes through information, clarification, inspections and full transparency," he added. He underscored the "seriousness" of the situation, explaining, "We have a country that has a very developed and ambitious nuclear program which is enriching at very high levels … very close to weapons grade."
js/aw (AFP, Reuters)