Pyongyang cranks up enrichment, says 38 North

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Pyongyang cranks up enrichment, says 38 North

North Korea’s main nuclear facility in Yongbyon appears to have ramped up uranium enrichment activities recently, according to a U.S.-based research group.
 
The monitoring website 38 North said satellite imagery of the area from Oct. 27 showed smoke or vapor coming from a building that was used to recover and purify uranium from raw concentrates, though “what is taking place now is unclear,” researchers added in their report.
 
The activity was observed at a building south of the uranium enrichment plant, a key facility in the sprawling Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center housing thousands of centrifuges used to enrich nuclear material for its weapons program.
 
The building probably houses refractory furnaces used to produce uranium dioxide, which is then made into uranium hexafluoride before being enriched, the report said.
 
The 38 North report further added the smoke was consistent with findings contained in a September report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which noted the production of enriched uranium appeared to be continuing at the plant given the emissions from the building in question.
 
It remains unclear whether the presence of vapor or smoke indicated uranium dioxide production or some other operation, 38 North added.  
 
Increased activity was observed in other parts of the complex, which is estimated to occupy around 25 square kilometers (9.7 square miles) including a residential district for workers, according to the website’s report.
 
Repair work appears to be underway at an overflow dam in the Kuryong River, which bisects the complex and flooded as a result of intense rains this summer.  
 
An earlier report from 38 North last week noted repair work on the dam was carried out since late September. The dam, the report noted, provides a constant source of cooling water for the 5MWe reactor and experimental light water reactor at the complex.
 
The Yongbyon complex is North Korea’s largest and most important known nuclear facility. It produced the fissile material used in the regime’s six nuclear tests.  
 
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to shut down the facility in exchange for partial sanctions relief during a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump last year, but Trump rebuffed the proposal, calling for Pyongyang to take greater steps toward denuclearization.
 
But with Trump facing a difficult re-election challenge, speculation is growing as to how Pyongyang will respond to the potential election of his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
 
Biden slammed Trump’s handling of diplomacy with the regime and notably called Kim a “thug” in his debate with the incumbent last month, while the North has made no secret of its preference for Trump remaining in the White House.  
 
Analysts have noted Biden could opt to resume the Barack Obama administration’s so-called strategic patience approach to the North, which would leave it sidelined on the U.S. agenda until Pyongyang presents a willingness to change.
 
But the regime’s enhanced ballistic weapons arsenal, shown most clearly in the enormous intercontinental ballistic missile it unveiled in a parade last month, may be difficult for an incoming American president to ignore.
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK   [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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