Images captured by commercial imaging company Maxar earlier this week show construction is underway at a uranium enrichment plant located within the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility complex — changes that could allow North Korea to increase production of weapons-grade nuclear material by as much as 25 percent, Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told CNN.
“The most recent expansion at Yongbyon probably reflects plans to increase production of nuclear materials for weapons production,” he added, noting the ongoing construction is consistent with previous efforts to add floorspace at the facility, allowing it to house more centrifuges and thus, enrich more uranium on a yearly basis.
“The new area is approximately 1,000 square meters, enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges. The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent,” Lewis said.
If North Korea were to upgrade the type of centrifuges currently in use at this plant, it “could increase the capacity of the plant substantially,” he told CNN.
US officials are aware of the recent activity at Yongbyon’s uranium enrichment plant and acknowledge those developments could signal plans to increase production of weapons-grade uranium, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
The National Security Council, Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and CIA all declined to comment.
Together, the activity has resulted in an exponential increase of tensions in what was already one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price condemned North Korea’s missile launches Wednesday and again called for a diplomatic approach to the issue.
“We have been very clear about what we want to see happen. We are committed to the principle that dialogue will allow us to pursue our ultimate objective and that’s quite simply the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Price said.
More concerns about activity at once-dormant facility
The report said these were the first indications of activity at the reactor since December 2018, calling North Korea’s nuclear activities “a cause for serious concern” and the new developments “deeply troubling.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un purportedly offered to dismantle the Yongbyon complex in exchange for sanctions relief during negotiations with former US President Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019. However, those talks collapsed in part because neither side was willing to budge. Trump’s team wanted either ballistic missile or other nuclear sites included in the deal, and Kim refused to accept a trade of Yongbyon for less sanctions relief, Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, wrote in his memoir.
While the site appeared to remain dormant until recently, US officials have broadly anticipated activity could resume.
US intelligence officials have said publicly they expect North Korea will remain a “Weapons of Mass Destruction threat” for the foreseeable future as Kim remains “strongly committed” to the country’s nuclear weapons.
Kim, himself, made clear in January that developing lighter, smaller nuclear weapons for tactical uses and pushing forward with production of “super-sized nuclear warheads” are two of North Korea’s top priorities.
“Achieving these goals will probably require North Korea to increase the amount of weapons-grade plutonium and uranium available for weapons production,” Lewis said.
Intelligence agencies have also assessed that Kim “may take a number of aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions to reshape the regional security environment and drive wedges between the United States and its allies—up to and including the resumption of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing,” according to the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment released earlier this year.
Recent activity at Yongbyon and a spate of missile tests by North Korea appear to validate both predictions — reviving concerns about the state of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” the IAEA report said, referring to North Korea by its official acronym, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
A senior administration official told CNN late last month that the US is aware of the new report and “closely coordinating with our allies and partners on developments regarding the DPRK.”
The senior official added, “This report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We continue to seek dialogue with the DPRK so we can address this reported activity and the full range of issues related to denuclearization.”
Renewed criticism of Biden’s North Korea approach
Recent actions by North Korea are also prompting fresh criticism of the Biden administration’s policy towards Pyongyang from Republicans in Congress.
“Given the Biden-Harris administration’s pitiful track record — it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Un now wants his pay-day from President Biden. That’s why he feels emboldened to resume testing missiles and restarted the Yongbyon nuclear reactor,” Rep. Mike Rogers, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement this week.
“We need to respond by strengthening alliances in the region, enforcing the sanctions regime, and increasing our investment in missile defense,” he added.
Relations between the two longtime adversaries have been frosty since, and both Washington and Pyongyang have been focused on containing the threat of Covid-19 since the pandemic swept the globe in early 2020. North Korea’s borders have been sealed to keep the virus at bay, despite the knock-on effects on trade with China, an economic lifeline for the impoverished country. Kim’s regime is now reportedly dealing with a food crisis.
President Biden’s administration has made several attempts to reach out to North Korea by email to start discussions with Washington, a senior South Korean official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN.
North Korea has acknowledged receipt of the emails, the official said, but did not feel compelled to respond due to what is seen as a lack of a detailed agenda or any serious indication the US is willing to move the conversation forward from what was agreed upon at Trump and Kim’s first summit Singapore in June 2018.
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger, Oren Lieberman and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting