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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea conducting tests at reactor site: UN report

Despite economic woes, reclusive state pushing ahead with weapons programs

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, and an aerial view of a light water nuclear reactor and a 5 MW nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. (Source photos by Reuters and 2020 Maxar Technologies/Getty Images)

NEW YORK -- North Korea has conducted tests at the Yongbyon nuclear complex recently, according to a draft U.N. report obtained by Nikkei.

The tests occurred between December 2020 and February this year, according to a draft report from an expert panel for the U.N. sanctions committee on North Korea, which operates under the U.N. Security Council.

The report paints a picture of Pyongyang continuing to develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite its economy worsening due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The report also sheds light on rampant smuggling in North Korea despite the U.N. economic embargo, as the country's elite grabs luxury goods for itself.

The draft report was submitted to the committee on Thursday. Nikkei obtained the report before its scheduled release in September. The final report will be released following discussion and amendment by the Security Council. The findings could be used as grounds for new sanctions against individuals or organizations found in breach of Security Council resolutions.

According to the draft report, activity was detected inside the Yongbyon complex via infrared and other imagery between December 2020 and February 2021, which the report says suggests that "some tests had occurred."

The report notes that "the external construction of a light water reactor seems to be complete," and that "installation of machinery is likely to be in progress." It adds, however, that the 5 MW reactor -- the facility's oldest -- showed no signs of operating since 2018.

North Korea continues to export coal in defiance of Security Council resolutions. Between February and May this year, at least 364,000 tons of coal were sent on North Korean vessels to the Ningbo-Zhoushan area, near Shanghai, in at least 41 shipments, the report says. Ship-to-ship oil smuggling continues to occur at sea.

North Korean imports of oil are capped at 500,000 barrels per year under a Security Council resolution, and the country had used only 4.75% of the quota as of mid-July, according to official data, but the draft report says that increasing illicit imports mean the country is "still likely to exceed the cap in 2021." The closure of North Korea's borders due to the pandemic has stopped most imports of consumer goods, but luxury items are still getting through.

North Korea smuggles in car tires and parts, construction and interior design materials and supplies for the family villa of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the draft report says.

The panel found that Chinese companies were involved in the smuggling of luxury vehicles worth $1 million, including Lexus LX570 SUVs.

North Korea also remains active in online thefts of funds and technology. The country "continues to conduct spear-phishing campaigns against the cryptocurrency industry," says the draft report, without specifying the amount taken by North Korea.

A panel report published in March found that North Korea had stolen $316.4 million through hacking of cryptocurrency operators in 2019 and 2020.

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