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will resume and expand its nuclear program if the ‘hostile policy’ held towards the North by the United States is not withdrawn.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.