Satellite imagery could show renewed activity at the Yongbyon facility in North Korea
Secretary Mattis will be visiting South Korea and Japan this week
It's his first visit abroad as secretary of defense
North Korea appears to be restarting a plutonium reactor just as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis prepares to visit neighboring South Korea and Japan.
An analysis of new satellite imagery from 38 North, a North Korea tracking project associated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, concludes that country is preparing to restart the reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
The images show that most of a river near the reactor is frozen over, except for where water originating from a reactor outlet mixes with the river – indicating that the reactor is likely operational.
Mattis’ visit to South Korea and Japan will be his first overseas trip as secretary of defense, making it a symbolic show of support for two of the US’ most important allies in the region who have concerns about how President Donald Trump will approach relations in the Pacific.
Trump has said that he wants to rethink the US role in the region. He’s publicly mused whether it’s worth continuing to support Japan and South Korea without reevaluating what the US gets in return.
The move comes as Pyongyang has made it clear it’s also racing ahead with the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the type of projectile that would be used to deliver a nuclear warhead.
US and South Korean officials said that the country may be preparing two ICBMs for testing in the near future, just weeks after President Kim Jong Un said the country is in the final stages of preparing its ICBM.
North Korea’s attempts to develop its missile technology come after a year of heightened nuclear activity.
In early January, President Trump promised that North Korea wouldn’t develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the US.
The THAAD question
One thing that’s almost sure to come up is the implementation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea.
The system is designed to take down a potential incoming projectiles and has been cited as a way to potentially stop a nuclear attack from North Korea.
Japan has also expressed interest in deploying the system on its own territory.
There was concern that Trump would take a step back on THAAD’s deployment, but South Korean government representatives have said that South Korean National Security Office chief Kim Kwan-jin met with incoming US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who reaffirmed that THAAD’s deployment will be moving ahead as planned.
Though the US believes the missile system is defensive in nature, Russia and China are vehemently opposed to it.
Both countries believe the system is a strategic tool to box each of them in, as THAAD is close enough that it could track and possibly take down their missiles.