North Korea appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor that is widely believed to have produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, the U.N. atomic watchdog said in an annual report, highlighting the isolated nation’s efforts to expand its arsenal.
The signs of operation at the 5-megawatt (MW) reactor, which is seen as capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, were the first to be spotted since late 2018, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in its report dated Friday, Reuters reported.
“Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation,” the IAEA report said of the reactor at Yongbyon, a nuclear complex at the heart of North Korea’s nuclear programme.
More plutonium could help North Korea make smaller nuclear weapons to fit on its ballistic missiles, said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.
“The bottom line is North Korea wants to improve the number and quality of its nuclear weapons,” he added.
While intelligence on North Korean nuclear weapons is limited, making it impossible to know their number, Albright estimated the country had the capacity to produce material for four to six bombs a year, Reuters reported.
The IAEA has had no access to North Korea since Pyongyang expelled its inspectors in 2009. The country subsequently pressed ahead with its nuclear weapons programme and soon resumed nuclear testing. Its last nuclear test was in 2017.
The IAEA now monitors North Korea from afar, largely through satellite imagery.
Blinken accuses Russia of using food as a weapon in Ukraine
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Russia on Thursday of using food as a weapon in Ukraine by holding “hostage” supplies for not just Ukrainians, but also millions around the world.
A senior official in Moscow later rejected the allegations, saying Russians were “not idiots” and would not export food while being subject to tough sanctions.
Addressing the United Nations Security Council, Blinken appealed to Russia to stop blockading Ukrainian ports.
“The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not – to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people,” he said.
“The food supply for millions of Ukrainians and millions more around the world has quite literally been held hostage.”
The war in Ukraine has caused global prices for grains, cooking oils, fuel and fertilizer to soar.
Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil, while Russia and Belarus – which has backed Moscow in its war in Ukraine – account for more than 40% of global exports of potash, a crop nutrient.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, writing on the Telegram messaging app, said Russians were skilled at producing food needed throughout the world under the right circumstances.
“Everything turns out to be illogical – on the one hand, crazy sanctions are introduced while on the other hand there are demands to supply food,” wrote Medvedev, now deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council.
“Things don’t work like that. We are not idiots.”
Medvedev said producing harvests required people skilled in agriculture, as well as proper equipment and fertilizer.
“Russia knows how to do this,” he wrote. “We have all the opportunities to ensure there is food in other countries, so that there are no crises. Just don’t prevent us from working.”
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, dismissed as “absolutely false” any suggestion that Russia was to blame for a global food crisis that had been brewing for several years.
He accused Ukraine of holding foreign vessels in its ports and mining the waters.
“The decision to weaponize food is Moscow’s and Moscow’s alone,” Blinken said.
“Some 20 million tons of grain sit unused in Ukrainian silos as global food supply dwindle (and) prices skyrocket.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is trying to broker a deal allowing Ukraine to resume food exports and revive Russian food and fertilizer production to world markets.
More Ukraine fighters surrendering in Mariupol, Russia says
Moscow said nearly 700 more Ukrainian fighters had surrendered in Russian-held Mariupol as it shored up a key gain in the south, while the United States became the latest Western country to reopen its embassy in Kyiv.
Ukraine has ordered its garrison in Mariupol to stand down, but the ultimate outcome of Europe’s bloodiest battle for decades remains unresolved.
Top commanders of Ukrainian fighters who had made their last stand at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city are still inside the plant, according to the leader of pro-Russian separatists in control of the area, Denis Pushilin, quoted by local news agency DNA on Wednesday.
Ukrainian officials have declined to comment publicly on the fate of the fighters.
“The state is making utmost efforts to carry out the rescue of our service personnel,” military spokesman Oleksandr Motuzaynik told a news conference. “Any information to the public could endanger that process.”
Ukraine confirmed the surrender of more than 250 fighters on Tuesday but did not say how many more were inside.
Russia said on Wednesday an additional 694 more fighters had surrendered, bringing the total number to 959. Its defence ministry posted videos of what it said were Ukrainian fighters receiving hospital treatment after surrendering at Azovstal.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Red Cross and the United Nations were involved in talks, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boichenko said, but gave no details.
Mariupol is the biggest city Russia has captured so far and allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to claim a rare victory in the invasion it began on Feb. 24.
Moscow has focussed on the southeast in recent offensives after pulling away from Kyiv, where, in a further sign of normalisation, the United States said it had resumed operations at its embassy on Wednesday.
“The Ukrainian people … have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the Embassy once again,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
A small number of diplomats would return initially to staff the mission but consular operations will not resume immediately, said embassy spokesperson Daniel Langenkamp. The U.S. Senate later approved veteran diplomat Bridget Brink as ambassador to Ukraine, filling a post that has been vacant for three years.
Canada, Britain and others have also recently resumed embassy operations.
Moscow says it is engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” its neighbour. The West and Kyiv call that a false pretext for invasion.
Finland and Sweden formally applied for NATO membership on Wednesday, a decision made in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and the very kind of expansion that Putin cited as a reason for attacking Ukraine.
U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith called for an expedited accession process that could be “done in a couple of months”, but NATO member Turkey said its approval depended on the return of “terrorists”, namely Kurdish militants and Fethullah Gulen followers.
Finland and Sweden were both militarily non-aligned throughout the Cold War.
Although Russia had threatened retaliation against the plans, Putin said on Monday their NATO membership would not be an issue unless the alliance sent more troops or weapons there.
Russia could, however, cut off gas supplies to Finland this week, Finland’s state-owned energy provider Gasum said.
The European Commission announced a 210 billion euro ($220 billion) plan for Europe to end its reliance on Russian oil, gas and coal by 2027.
Meanwhile, Google (GOOGL.O) became the latest big Western company to pull out of Russia, saying its local unit had filed for bankruptcy and was forced to shut operations after its bank accounts were seized. read more
On the battle front, Russian forces pressed on with their main offensive, trying to capture more territory in the eastern Donbas region which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Ukrainian saboteurs had blown up the tracks ahead of an armoured train carrying Russian troops in the occupied southern city of Melitopol. read more
“The partisans got it, although they did not blow up the armoured train itself,” he said in a video posted on social media, contradicting an earlier statement from Ukraine’s territorial defence force that the train had been blown up.
Arestovych said the incident showed that the partisan movement was actively disrupting Russian forces.
The capture of Mariupol, the main port for the Donbas, has given Moscow full control of the Sea of Azov and an unbroken swathe of territory across Ukraine’s east and south.
The governor of the Luhansk region, part of the Donbas, said there had been a number of attacks there.
“Most of the shelling today was conducted in Severodonetsk and villages nearby… The Russians are still trying to cut the “road of life” through the centre of Luhansk region linking Lysychansk and Bakhmut,” Serhity Gaidai wrote on Telegram.
Finland, Sweden submit application to join NATO
Finland and Sweden formally applied to join the NATO alliance on Wednesday at allied headquarters, a decision spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and setting in motion an accession process that is expected to take only a few weeks.
Sweden and Finland were both neutral throughout the Cold War, and their decision to join NATO is one of the most significant changes in Europe’s security architecture for decades, reflecting a sweeping shift in public opinion in the Nordic region since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
“This is a historic moment, which we must seize,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at a short ceremony in which the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the alliance handed over their application letters, each in a white folder embossed with their national flag.
“I warmly welcome requests by Finland and Sweden to join NATO. You are our closest partners, and your membership in NATO will increase our shared security,” Stoltenberg said. The alliance considers that the accession of Finland and Sweden would hugely strengthen it in the Baltic Sea.
Ratification of all 30 allied parliaments could take up to a year, diplomats say.
Turkey has surprised its allies in recent days by saying it had reservations about Finnish and Swedish membership. Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that he thought the issues could be resolved.
“We are determined to work through all issues and reach rapid conclusions,” Stoltenberg said, noting strong support from all other allies.
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