Images captured by commercial imaging company Maxar earlier this week show that construction is underway at a uranium enrichment plant located in the Yongbyon nuclear research facility complex – changes that could allow North Korea to increase its production of military-grade nuclear material by up to 25%, Jeffrey Lewis, weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told CNN.
“The most recent expansion at Yongbyon likely reflects plans to increase the production of nuclear material for weapons production,” he added, noting that the construction underway is in line with previous efforts to add fuel. floor space at the facility, allowing it to house more centrifuges and thus enrich more uranium each year.
“The new area is approximately 1,000 square meters, enough space to house an additional 1,000 centrifuges. The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25%,” Lewis said.
If North Korea were to upgrade the type of centrifuges currently used at this factory, it “could significantly increase the capacity of the factory,” he told CNN.
US officials are aware of recent activity at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant and recognize that these developments could signal plans to increase production of military-grade uranium, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
The National Security Council, the Defense Ministry, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA all declined to comment.
Together, the activity led to an exponential rise in tensions in what was already one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the North Korean missile fire on Wednesday and again called for a diplomatic approach to the issue.
“We have been very clear on what we want to happen. We are committed to the premise that dialogue will allow us to pursue our ultimate goal and that is simply the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Price said.
No more worries about activity in a once dormant facility
The report says this is the first indication of activity in the reactor since December 2018, calling North Korea’s nuclear activities “serious concern” and the new developments “deeply disturbing.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly offered to dismantle the Yongbyon compound in exchange for sanctions relief during negotiations with former US President Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019. However, those talks failed in part because ‘neither side was prepared to budge. Trump’s team wanted either a ballistic missile or other nuclear sites included in the deal, and Kim refused to accept a Yongbyon swap for less sanctions relief, the former adviser wrote. Trump’s National Security, John Bolton, in his memoir.
While the site appeared to sit dormant until recently, U.S. officials have widely anticipated that activity may resume.
US intelligence officials have publicly stated that they expect North Korea to remain a “weapons of mass destruction threat” for the foreseeable future, as Kim remains “strongly attached” to the country’s nuclear weapons.
Kim himself made it clear in January that the development of lighter and smaller nuclear weapons for tactical purposes and the continued production of “large nuclear warheads” were two of Korea’s top priorities. North.
“To achieve these goals, North Korea will likely need to increase the amount of military-grade plutonium and uranium available for weapons production,” Lewis said.
Intelligence agencies have also assessed that Kim “could take a number of aggressive and potentially destabilizing steps to reshape the regional security environment and drive rifts between the United States and its allies, up to and including the recovery. nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, ”according to the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment released earlier this year.
Recent activities in Yongbyon and a series of missile tests by North Korea appear to validate both predictions, rekindling concerns about the state of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a flagrant violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” said the IAEA report, 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 United States is aware of the new report and “is coordinating closely with our allies and partners on developments concerning the DPRK.”
The senior official added, “This report underlines the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so that we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. to denuclearization. “
Renewed criticism of Biden’s North Korean approach
North Korea’s recent actions are also prompting further criticism from Republicans in Congress against the Biden administration’s policy towards Pyongyang.
“Given the pitiful track record of the Biden-Harris administration – it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Un now wants his salary from President Biden. That’s why he feels emboldened to resume missile testing and restart the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, ”said Representative Mike Rogers. , a senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement this week.
“We must respond by strengthening alliances in the region, applying the sanctions regime and increasing our investments in missile defense,” he added.
Relations between the two longtime adversaries have been freezing ever since, and Washington and Pyongyang have focused on containing the threat of Covid-19 since the pandemic swept the world in early 2020. North Korea’s borders were sealed to keep the virus at bay, despite the spillover effects on trade with China, an economic lifeline for the impoverished country. Kim’s diet is now said to be in the grip of a food crisis.
President Biden’s administration has made several attempts to contact North Korea by email to initiate talks with Washington, a senior South Korean official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN.
North Korea acknowledged receipt of the emails, the official said, but did not feel compelled to respond due to what is considered a lack of a detailed agenda or any serious indication that the United States is ready to move the conversation forward on what had been agreed. at Trump and Kim’s first summit in Singapore in June 2018.
CNN’s Joshua Berlinger, Oren Lieberman and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting