North Korea Resumes Operation Of Its Yongbyon Nuclear Reactor

With Afghanistan now set in the rear-view mirror of the embattled Biden administration, North Korea could be stepping up as the next foreign policy challenge for the United States. Back in early July, the North resumed operations at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which had been closed since December 2018. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) noted the activity in a report released last week. “Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation of the reactor.” The Yongbyon reactor is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Its reactivation has stirred concern about North Korea taking steps to expand its nuclear arsenal. In fact, Pyongyang warned the US recently that it will resume and expand its nuclear program if the ‘hostile policy’ held towards the North by the United States is not withdrawn. This was a blatant reference to the continuation of US-South Korean military exercises and economic sanctions.

Resuming operations at Yongbyon could very well be a calculated step by North Korea intended to gain leverage in its struggle to remove the economic sanctions that the US has in place. Or could turn out to be a direct test of the Biden administration’s resolve in the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal.  Pyongyang might wish to see how far it can push the United States, moving on the assumption that the US is more likely to talk and compromise rather than adopt a decisive position on Yongbyon’s reactivation. If this is the case, a proposal might be coming from the North in the coming weeks.

Thursday 22 March, 2018 Update: Israel Sends a Message

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The Israeli government admitted it was responsible for a 2007 airstrike on a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria capable of producing weapons grade material. The attack was launched on 6 September, 2007. Eight Israeli Air Force F-15I Ra’am multirole fighters (essentially F-15E Strike Eagles) struck the reactor located in the Deir ez-Zor region and destroyed it completely. The nuclear facility was under construction when it was hit. A number of North Korean technicians and workers were among the casualties. North Korea and Iran were working with Syria to build the facility. There was widespread speculation at the time that Iran and North Korea helped to fund and construct the site in order to use it to produce weapons grade material in the future should their own facilities become unavailable. In the aftermath of the strike, Syria, Israel, and every other nation in the region kept quiet publicly about what had actually been hit. The truth was known, however, in capital cities from the Middle East to Washington DC and beyond.  President George W Bush even mentioned the attack in his memoirs released in 2010.

Israel chose now to release the details about Operation Outside the Box, as it was officially know, to serve as a shot across Iran’s bow. Tel Aviv wants Tehran to know that Israel is willing and able to use force in order to prevent its enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. The 2007 strike against the Syrian site, as well as the 1981 Osirak raid, serve as proof of the Israeli government’s commitment to the Begin Doctrine. Iran’s continuing quest to gain influence in Syria, coupled with last month’s Israeli military action against Iranian targets inside of Syria have made Israel reconsider whether or not Iran will abide by the boundaries that are currently in place to prevent armed conflict between the two nations.

Israel’s other motivation for releasing details about its 2007 action could be the increasing possibility of the United States walking away from the Iran nuclear deal entirely. At present, efforts to revamp the deal are underway, however, it appears unlikely a middle ground will be reached by US and European officials. In the event of the deal being scrapped, Israel is concerned with how Iran will respond. Reminding Tehran of Israel’s willingness to use force against its enemies nuclear ambitions may help deter Iran from resuming its nuclear program…..assuming they even stopped it in the first place.