Vienna International Centre, where IAEA offices are located
Vienna International Centre, where IAEA offices are located iStock

North Korea appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor that is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, the UN atomic watchdog said in an annual report, according to Reuters.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has had no access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009 and now monitors North Korea from afar, largely through satellite imagery.

“There were no indications of reactor operation from early December 2018 to the beginning of July 2021,” the IAEA report said of the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, a nuclear complex at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear program.

“However, since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor,” it added, according to Reuters.

The IAEA issues the report annually before a meeting of its member states, posting it online with no announcement.

The report said the duration of that apparent work - five months, from mid-February to early July - suggested a full batch of spent fuel was handled, in contrast to the shorter time needed for waste treatment or maintenance.

In June, the IAEA said that North Korea’s nuclear activities remain "a cause for serious concern".

The US, during former President Donald Trump’s term in office, tried to reach an agreement on denuclearization with North Korea. Kim and Trump met in Hanoi in 2019 for a summit that left nuclear talks at a standstill.

The pair had met three times since June 2018 but made little progress towards denuclearization.

The new Biden administration reached out to North Korea but the country did not respond to those overtures.

In Biden’s first policy speech to Congress, the President said nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran posed threats that would be addressed through “diplomacy and stern deterrence”.

The remarks angered North Korea, which said Biden’s speech was “intolerable” and “a big blunder”.