Yongbyon activity continued through winter, 30 North finds

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Yongbyon activity continued through winter, 30 North finds

North Korea continued to operate its uranium enrichment plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex through the winter, according a U.S. research group monitoring the secretive regime.  
 
Washington-based monitoring website 38 North said satellite imagery of the area indicated continual operation throughout January and February, noting in particular the arrival and departure of specialized railcars to the area on a regular basis.  
 
The railcars have been uniquely configured and specialized to carry cylindrical canisters, potentially containing chemical reagents, and arrive at the plant two or three times a year, the report said. The railcars stayed at the plant for approximately four weeks to transfer their content before departing, the researchers added.
 
A tanker trailer truck possibly containing liquid nitrogen – a necessary material in operating cold traps used in the uranium enrichment process – was also observed at the plant between Jan. 30 and Feb. 11, imagery showed.  
 
The research group also noted signs of low-level activity in other parts of the sprawling complex showed, including construction work at an administrative facility and continued flood control efforts at the nearby Kuryong River.
 
The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center is the North’s largest and best known nuclear facility, responsible for producing the fissile material used in the regime’s six nuclear tests.  
 
For years now, reactors at the complex have remained inactive, but other parts of Yongbyon – particularly the uranium enrichment plant – have displayed signatures of periodic activity.  
 
In November, 38 North said it had observed smoke or vapor rising from a building at the plant used to recover and purify uranium from raw concentrates, though researchers noted it was unclear what was taking place.  
 
The observations of continued activity at the complex concur with U.S. intelligence reports alleging the regime continues to undertake nuclear development efforts in spite of its past denuclearization negotiations with the Trump administration.  
 
On the heels of an all-important party congress last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed to upgrade the country’s nuclear war deterrence even further, while labeling the United States as the country’s “foremost principal enemy.”  
 
While it has yet to enter in any official dialogue with the regime as it calibrates its policy toward the North, the Biden administration has assured Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains an urgent priority that would be addressed through a continued commitment to the regime’s denuclearization.  
 
As it awaits U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies toward the regime, North Korea has focused on internal matters in a bid to overcome the economic hardships intensified throughout a virus-ridden 2020.  
 
On Friday, Pyongyang’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the appointment of Ri Yong-nam, a specialist in foreign trade, as ambassador to China,
 
A former cabinet premier and trade minister, Ri holds a special connection to China, where he attended university. Ri was also figure to lead discussions with South Korea’s business leaders who visited Pyongyang in Sept. 2018 as part of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s entourage during the third inter-Korean summit that year.  
 
Analysts noted the appointment highlighted the North’s desire to ramp up cooperation with its largest economic partner after trade between the two countries plummeted last year due to Covid-19 restrictions.  
 
Domestically, the regime’s propaganda machine has been churning out slogans calling on officials to curb down on wastefulness and “self-protecting” behavior as part of a drive to implement the country’s new five-year development plan.  
 
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]
 
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