Satellite imagery shows renewed activity at a North Korean nuclear facility, suggesting that Kim Jong Un’s regime is preparing or has already begun to reprocess plutonium for nuclear weapons, experts say.
The commercial satellite photos show steam or smoke rising from a small building in the Yongbyon Radiochemistry Laboratory and an adjacent thermal facility. The laboratory reprocesses spent fuel rods to make plutonium for atomic bombs.
The photos published by Maxar Technologies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies have been posted on the think tank’s website. Beyond parallel.
Previous satellite imagery had shown other signs of activity in the thermal power plant in recent weeks. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, cited signs of activity at the Yongbyon facility and elsewhere this month, citing nuclear work as a clear violation of United States sanctions.
The latest activity suggests North Korea is preparing to make fresh efforts on nuclear reprocessing, said Victor Cha, chairman of Korea’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, who is a senior national security official in the George W. Bush administration was.
The move and two rounds of missile tests over the past few weeks are a political maneuver by Kim to challenge the administration of President Joe Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Cha said.
“It’s a series of escalations. I think it’s pretty calculated. They’re increasing the pressure, like they did with President Trump and President Obama,” said Cha.
The moves are “nothing new to North Korea, but it happens pretty early in the administration,” he said.
The White House, State Department and Department of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
After the Biden government presented a united front with allies in Asia, including Japan and South Korea, and took a hard line in talks with China, “I think North Korea feels it needs to respond,” said Cha, who also Professor is the government at Georgetown University.
To escalate further, North Korea could fire longer-range missiles, conduct a nuclear test, or fire an ICBM, possibly from a submarine, Cha and other experts said.
North Korea has not conducted an intercontinental missile test since the end of 2017. After a period of high tension, the Trump administration pursued diplomacy with Pyongyang. Talks between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2019 ultimately failed without an agreement.
The United States Security Council held a closed session on North Korea on Tuesday, but the discussions did not lead to immediate results. The US Ambassador to the United States, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said on Monday: “We are looking at additional measures that we could take here in New York.”
North Korea has taken a number of provocative steps and statements in the past few weeks.
When the US and South Korea conducted computer-simulated joint military exercises, Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, warned Washington on March 16 against “causing a stink”.
Days later, North Korea launched a pair of short-range cruise missiles into the Yellow Sea. Senior government officials in Biden said at the time that cruise missile tests were on the lower end of the scale, which the regime could do to increase tensions.
Then, last week, North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles in violation of United States resolutions. Kim’s sister called South Korean President Moon “an American-raised parrot” on Friday.
At his first press conference last week, Biden said the US would consult with its allies and react if the regime wanted to “escalate”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Biden has no plans to meet with Kim.
“I think his approach would be very different and that is not his intention,” said Psaki.
Counteradministrator Michael Studeman, intelligence director of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said this month that recent North Korean nuclear activity could be designed to leverage the U.S. to ensure exemption from punishment from sanctions.
“We have that in mind. And it is very important where North Korea is going,” said Studeman at a virtual event. If North Korea has started reprocessing, “this could put us in a different tension if Korea goes through 2021,” he said.