North Korea’s largest and most important nuclear research facilities remain well-maintained and operational, the monitor site 38 North revealed this week.
Citing images taken in December, the site’s analysts say facilities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center do not appear to be currently in use, apart from a uranium enrichment plant. Enriched uranium features more unstable molecules, which emit radiation and can be used to fuel nuclear energy plants and make nuclear warheads.
“Commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center from December 2018 indicates that while the site remains operational and is still well maintained, the main facilities do not appear to be operating,” write analysts Frank V. Pabian and Jack Liu. “The one possible exception is the Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP), although if it is operating, in what capacity remains unclear.”
One of the clearest signs that the site is being properly maintained is the absence of snow from two of the main gas centrifuges, although this could be merely a result of exposure to sun.
“Imagery from December 19, 2018 shows that the roofs of the two gas centrifuge halls are devoid of snow,” the report states. “Considering the snowfall just prior to the image capture was light, the snow melt could be a natural result of sun exposure over time. But snow melt may also indicate that the facility is operating, a conclusion reinforced by the two patches of possible frozen water vapor evident in the immediate area of the cooling units at the west end of the UEP.”
“If operating, the centrifuges inside are likely, at a minimum, being maintained and spinning,” their analysis continues. “Whether or not the spinning centrifuges are being fed with uranium for enrichment processing is impossible to determine based on imagery alone.”
The imagery underlines the growing evidence that North Korea is doing little to downgrade their nuclear threat amid peace negotiations with South Korea and the United States, and in some cases ramping up research and production. For example, growing questions have been raised about the regime’s supposed “demolition” of the Punggye-Ri nuclear test site last year, with some experts arguing the site may still be functional.
Other reports have detailed how the regime is still aggressively developing some of its most powerful nuclear assets despite pledges to halt all nuclear activity as peace negotiations take place. In his recent New Year address, communist dictator Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his commitment to denuclearizing but said that the United States must start making greater concessions in the form of lifting economic sanctions.
“If the United States takes sincere measures and corresponding action to our leading and pre-emptive efforts, then (US-North Korea) relations will advance at a fast and excellent pace through the process of implementing (such) definite and groundbreaking measures,” he declared.