Uranium enrichment in Yongbyon is growing: report
“Satellite images show that North Korea is expanding the size of its uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis, Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler in a report published earlier in the week.
The report shows satellite images taken by Maxar, a private satellite image provider, of the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon taken from early August to mid-September.
The images show that a forested area next to the uranium enrichment plant is cleared of the trees by Sept. 1, and has a wall enclosing the new space by Sept. 14. Panels between the enrichment facility and the new space were removed by Sept. 14, to allow direct access between the two.
“The new area is approximately 1,000 square meters, enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges,” reads the report. “The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent.”
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, reactors at the complex have been largely inactive, but other parts of Yongbyon – particularly the uranium enrichment plant – have displayed signs of periodic activity.
In November 2020, 38 North, a U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group, said it 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.
In February, the group said it found indications of continual operation of the plant from January, based on satellite images.
The activities at the uranium enrichment plant likely reflect North Korean plans to increase its nuclear weapons production, said the Middlebury report, which is in line with what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in a speech earlier this year.
During a speech to the Workers’ Party of Korea in January, Kim emphasized production of “super-sized nuclear warheads” and the need to “make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses,” according to a report by the North’s official Rodong Sinmun on Jan. 10.
“Achieving these goals will probably require North Korea to increase the amount of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium available for weapons production,” said the Middlebury report. “The production of thermonuclear weapons (“super-sized nuclear warheads”), in particular, requires substantial amounts of highly enriched uranium.”
The discovery of activities at the Yongbyon site follows missile tests and launches by the North in the past week. The North announced Monday it tested what it called new long-range cruise missiles on Sept. 11 and 12, and launched a ballistic missile from a train-borne launcher Wednesday.
All this may be part of Pyongyang’s attempt to pressure the United States for sanctions relief, said some experts in Korea.
“The North has additional key uranium enrichment facilities, other than the one at Yongbyon, that it has kept hidden as so-called ‘wild cards,’” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University. “It knows the United States has eyes on the Yongbyon facility. So by making a move at a very visible site, it may be trying to pressure the United States to lift the sanctions.”
The Joe Biden administration has maintained that it is open to dialogue with Pyongyang on denuclearization and humanitarian assistance, but kept the sanctions on the North, which the U.S. government has implemented annually since 2008.
“The U.S. government is sticking with its position on humanitarian support to the North, because it is not interested in getting more involved with the North at this moment, other than to maintain the status quo, because right now it has other issues to worry about like Afghanistan,” said Kim Hong-kyun, a former South Korean negotiator in the six-party talks for the North’s denuclearization. “The North may have a whole scenario of provocations planned and will likely continue rolling them out [to get U.S. attention].”
BY KIM SANG-JIN, YOO JEE-HYE AND ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]