Our intelligence agencies have known since last month that North Korea was restarting its uranium production program and they’re not working on peaceful power production facilities. It was yet another indication that the past couple of years worth of talks aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula weren’t showing any signs of gaining traction. That doesn’t mean that all of the involved parties haven’t continued talking, or at least trying to. As recently as this week, Chinese officials were in South Korea meeting with President Moon Jae-in. That was taking place at the same time that both Koreas were test-firing missiles.
If there was a memo issued to North Korea about toning things down, they clearly either didn’t receive it or ignored it. This weekend we’re learning of verified intelligence reports confirming that North Korea has expanded its capacity at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The upgrades are estimated to increase the country’s production of weapons-grade uranium by as much as 25%. Combining this news with Kim’s recent upgrades to his solid-fuel ICBMs suggests that the threat presented by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions continues to grow rather than abate.
Recent satellite images shows North Korea is expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, a sign that it’s intent on boosting the production of bomb materials, experts say.
The assessment comes after North Korea recently raised tensions by performing its first missile tests in six months amid long-dormant nuclear disarmament diplomacy with the United States.
“The expansion of the enrichment plant probably indicates that North Korea plans to increase its production of weapons-grade uranium at the Yongbyon site by as much as 25 percent,” Jeffrey Lewis and two other experts at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey said in a report.
Sattelite images taken in the first two weeks of September show that the North Koreans have cleared trees and leveled the ground in a large area adjacent to the main Yongbyon complex and new walls have already gone up. Since it’s unlikely they’re building a new Waffle House out there, the reason for the construction appears fairly obvious.
As with all of Kim’s nuclear activities in the past, however, it’s impossible to say how much of this activity is primarily intended to advance his weapons program and how much he’s using it for propaganda purposes. (The possibility that the construction work serves both causes can’t be ignored.) North Korea isn’t making any effort to hide these activities. They obviously know by now that we have satellites covering the region on a daily basis. They probably know almost exactly when they will be overhead.
And yet they aren’t seeking to mask the construction work from our eyes in the sky. Previous North Korean weapons facility construction work was done underground or at least in the shade of large roofs, blocking our view. It’s not impossible that this work is intended to spur the other parties in the nuclear talks to consider meeting some of Kim’s demands more quickly.
Of course, we don’t know how serious Kim may or may not be because he continues to turn a cold shoulder to the Biden administration’s efforts to reach out and restart the talks. The last time the White House made the effort, Kim didn’t even answer. He sent his sister out to reject America’s calls for more discussions.
Absent any additional progress in the discussions, it’s a safe bet that North Korea already has plenty of the fuel required to put together more warheads. And it probably won’t be very long before we detect some of them being detonated. How the Biden administration responds to such a provocative act will prove instructive.