WASHINGTON -- The United Nations' top nuclear official on Monday said his agency was is having difficulty charting the progress North Korea is making in restarting its disabled plutonium production reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear complex.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has not had any staff on the ground in the North since April 2009, noted IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. That leaves satellites as a primary source of information.
"What we can observe from above is limited," Amano said.
North Korea announced last week it would reopen the Soviet-era reactor and dedicate all of its atomic facilities to nuclear weapons production work in response to perceived threats from the United States and South Korea.
As the plant's cooling tower was blown up under a 2007 denuclearization agreement with the United States, "it will take time to restart the five-megawatt reactor. We do not know how long it will take because observing it from satellite imagery, we cannot tell how they are maintaining it, how they are refurbishing the facility. Normally it will take time to restart the reactor," the IAEA chief said during a press briefing at the annual Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference.
Experts have said the North could eventually each year glean enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon from the facility. Pyongyang is believed to have enough plutonium for about six bombs, after using part of its stock for at least two of its three atomic tests. Observers do not know if the nation used plutonium or highly enriched uranium from another plant for its most recent underground atomic detonation.
Amano said his agency was also unable to determine if North Korea is preparing for a fourth nuclear test.
"We are monitoring the activities in North Korea by using satellite imagery … but our knowledge on the activities of North Korea is rather limited,” he said. “I cannot speculate when and if North Korea will conduct another nuclear test.."
South Korean Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae on Monday was reported to have said there were "signs" that Pyongyang was preparing to carry out another nuclear test. The minister later said he had spoken out of turn, according to a spokeswoman. Ryoo meant to say North Korea is generally ready to carry out another detonation, according to an Associated Press report.
Ahead of the North’s third nuclear test in February, foreign observers noted that surveillance photographs suggested two separate tunnels -- the west portal and the south portal -- had been readied for nuclear tests. This caused experts to speculate Pyongyang might plan to carry out multiple detonations in a short amount of time.
The North is strongly suspected to have aided Syria in secretly constructing a plutonium production reactor in the desert near Dair Alzour that was destroyed in a 2007 Israeli airstrike. An initial IAEA inspection in 2008 of the razed site turned up traces of anthropogenic natural uranium. Damascus since then has stymied the agency's attempts to regain access to the area for a follow-up probe into Syria's alleged nuclear weapons-related work.
In late February, Syrian rebels were reported to have seized control of the Dair Alzour area. Amano said his agency has heard those reports but “we don’t hear anything" from the rebels. "We are dealing with the Syrian government," he added.