North Korea seems to have restarted a plutonium-producing reactor in Yongbyon, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "The white coloration and volume 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," it said.
Since the early 1990s, North Korea has been using spent nuclear fuel rods from the Yongbyon plant to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons that it tested in 2006 and 2009. The North has always used the reactor as a bargaining chip to get the U.S. to sit down at the negotiating table. Back in April, North Korea once again threatened to restart the reactor. Given all that, this is not an alarming development.
The Geneva accords of 1994 between the U.S. and North Korea, the Sept. 19 2005 statement of principles in the six-party talks, and another statement from Feb. 13, 2007, promise that the North would freeze the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and put it under the monitoring of the IAEA in return for a light-water reactor and food and fuel aid. The North did receive hundreds of thousands of tons of food and heavy fuel oil but ended up restarting the reactor accusing U.S. of "hostile acts."
North Korea seems to be under the illusion that this tactic will work again. Only this time Washington is not budging from its refusal to negotiate until the North shows it is sincere, despite the pleas of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Busy with its engagement in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, the U.S. is in no rush to resume the six-party talks with North Korea. Any pressure from Pyongyang could therefore backfire, resulting in tougher sanctions and no prospect of fresh talks. Once China realizes that trying to convince the U.S. to return to talks is futile, Beijing would have few options but to back the sanctions, however grudgingly. North Korea must realize that restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor is the wrong move.