South Korea’s Defense Minister Discusses North Korea’s Nuclear Reactor and Regional Tensions

Seoul – South Korea's Defense Minister Shin Won-sik revealed that North Korea's experimental light-water nuclear reactor is likely to be fully operational by next summer. This announcement was made after recent observations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) indicated increased activity at the site.

According to Yonhap News Agency, the IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi had expressed concerns over the activities at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex. Grossi noted the detection of strong water outflows from the reactor's cooling system since mid-October, suggesting the commissioning of the reactor. Despite its potential to produce plutonium, a crucial component for nuclear weapons, Shin expressed doubts over its use for weapon production, suggesting it might be intended for electricity generation or possibly for powering a tactical nuclear submarine.

The reactor, under construction for over a decade, surpasses the capacity of Yongbyon's existing 5-megawatt reactor used for plutonium production. Shin highlighted that the reactor is currently undergoing tests and improvements, aiming for normal operation by next summer.

While the U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear activities, Shin underscored that no other country has used a light-water reactor to produce plutonium for weapons. However, he acknowledged the possibility of the reactor being used to develop small reactors for military purposes, including the production of tritium for hydrogen bombs.

Shin also addressed the increasing incursions of Chinese military aircraft into South Korea's air defense identification zone (ADIZ). In response, South Korean aircraft have begun entering China's ADIZ, a measure Shin described as a reciprocal action to the 133 Chinese entries this year. He noted the difference in protocol, as South Korean aircraft notify China prior to entry, in line with international norms.

Regarding North Korea's military cooperation with Russia, Shin reported the shipment of approximately 5,000 containers of military equipment or munitions from North Korea to Russia, potentially amounting to significant quantities of artillery shells or rockets. This cooperation seems to be escalating since the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September.

Shin also mentioned the likelihood of North Korea conducting strategic provocations in the new year, possibly to influence the U.S. presidential election. Indications of preparations for launching solid-fuel intercontinental and intermediate-range ballistic missiles have been observed.

On the South Korean side, Shin confirmed the successful testing of new high-precision, high-power missiles, including the development of the Hyunmoo-5 missile capable of carrying a heavy warhead.

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