Well, it’s good to see that things are going swimmingly on the Korean Peninsula this year. On the heels of multiple ballistic missile launches from North Korea, including some new, solid-fuel rockets thought to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, Kim Jong-un appears to be upping the ante even more. Recently released satellite photos show renewed activity at the Yongbyon Radiochemistry Laboratory. That’s the facility where North Korea processes spent nuclear reactor rods to obtain plutonium that is then refined to create weapons-grade fuel. The renewed activity suggests that North Korea’s diminutive dictator isn’t waiting around for Joe Biden to accept his invitation to drop some of our sanctions against him in exchange for a fresh round of negotiations. Could another test detonation be far behind? (NBC News)
Satellite images show renewed activity at a North Korean nuclear facility, suggesting that Kim Jong Un’s regime is preparing to start or has already started reprocessing plutonium for nuclear weapons, experts say.
The commercial satellite photos show steam or smoke rising from a small building at the Yongbyon Radiochemistry Laboratory and from an adjacent thermal plant. The lab reprocesses spent fuel rods to extract plutonium for nuclear bombs.
The photos, released by Maxar Technologies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, were posted on the think tank’s website, Beyond Parallel.
You can check out the photos here. The Yongbyon site had appeared to be inactive for quite a while now, but if they are back up and running, that almost certainly means that Kim is back in the bomb-making business. To be fair, all the photos really show is “smoke or steam” rising from a couple of buildings, so perhaps it’s possible that the place just caught fire (which wouldn’t be a great development either) but that doesn’t seem likely to the analysts looking over these images.
Kim was claiming as early as late 2019 that he was either close to mastering the ability to miniaturize a warhead to the point where it could be carried on his ICBMs or he was already there. Given his reputation for boasting, that might not be true yet, but he’s obviously working on it. And once he has solid-fuel rockets capable of reaching the continental United States and nuclear warheads that will fit onboard, the game will have significantly changed.
Janes Defense has confirmed that North Korea has been field-testing its Super Large Multiple Rocket Launcher (MRL) for several months now. Kim has also featured the rockets prominently in recent military parades. This no longer looks like a case of false bravado or staged public relations. The tiny tyrant is definitely playing with fire here.
But what, if anything, should the United States and the rest of the west do in response? Thus far, the only statement coming out of Joe Biden’s White House is that they are “watching the situation carefully” and will coordinate with our allies to determine an “appropriate response” if required. I’m not sure what sort of “response” is possible beyond even more sanctions at this point, though. Unless we’re talking about some sort of covert operation, a military response isn’t really an option. Any open strike on Kim’s country might just convince the little maniac to try a first strike.
It’s also not even clear if we still have a united front with our allies in terms of dealing with Kim. Just this week, the Prime Minister of Japan signaled his willingness to hold a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un. That’s precisely the type of international recognition Kim craves, so he’s likely to take him up on the offer. But if our allies are willing to meet with Kim while Joe Biden refuses to do so, that could be a sign that North Korea’s efforts to splinter the coalition we’ve formed against them are working.
This still isn’t going to be a situation that Joe Biden has to act on immediately because it’s mostly a return to the status quo we witnessed prior to Donald Trump’s efforts at negotiating. But the situation isn’t going to hold forever, either. Somebody at the White House needs to come up with a plan to solve this puzzle and I somehow don’t think putting Kamala Harris in charge of it is going to help.