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U.S. Intel Chief Confirms North Korean Reactor Relaunch

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

An activist takes part in an anti-North Korea demonstration last year in Seoul. U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Wednesday backed independent reports that Pyongyang appears to have restarted a reactor capable of producing nuclear-weapon plutonium. An activist takes part in an anti-North Korea demonstration last year in Seoul. U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Wednesday backed independent reports that Pyongyang appears to have restarted a reactor capable of producing nuclear-weapon plutonium. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea appears to have restarted a Soviet-era plutonium production reactor, the top U.S. intelligence official told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Findings also suggest that the isolated state is "expanding the size" of a nearby uranium-enrichment centrifuge plant, National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the Senate intelligence committee in a yearly threat assessment. The apparent moves appeared to fall in line with North Korea's stated intention to expand operations for generating nuclear-bomb fuel, and with independent reports of new activities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex over the last year.

"We have long assessed that, in Pyongyang's view, its nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy," Clapper stated in prepared comments. "We do not know Pyongyang's nuclear doctrine or employment concepts."

Surveillance images of Yongbyon from last summer showed steam rising from a facility near North Korea's graphite-moderated reactor, suggesting the plutonium site had relaunched, according to a September analysis by the expert website "38 North."

The likely expansion of North Korea's uranium-centrifuge plant came to light in an August analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank in Washington. The organization pointed to further activity near the site in a December report, but said the objectives of the work could not "conclusively be identified."

Separately, Clapper called attention to North Korea's focus on "developing long-range missile technology that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States."

Pyongyang appears to have "already taken initial steps" to deploy its KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile, though the weapon "remains untested," he said in the report.

In an October analysis of satellite photos, independent experts said North Korea's Dongchang-ri missile complex appeared to be hosting construction of a new mobile-missile launch pad capable of test-firing the KN-08.

Clapper said North Korea has "displayed" the weapon on two occasions. Independent observers, though, judge past showings of the weapon to have involved replicas of growing sophistication.

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