Increased activity seen at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear site, analyst says

By Elizabeth Shim  |  Jan. 19, 2017 at 9:39 AM
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North Korea may have resumed operations at its nuclear facility in Yongbyon, according to a U.S. analyst.

Writing for 38 North, a Johns Hopkins University website dedicated to North Korea issues, Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. says commercial satellite imagery taken between October 2016 and January 2017 show Pyongyang is getting ready to restart operations at the 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon.

The facility is "operating at a level somewhat above what has been observed during the past five years," Bermudez writes.

"The exact implications of that activity remain unclear except to reaffirm that the Yongbyon facility remains the center of North Korea's nuclear program," the analyst adds.

The images indicate a reversal of trends that have been in place since late 2015, when operations were suspended at the reactor, according to the analysis.

"Throughout the previous four months, there has been a continued presence of vehicles at and around the 5-megawatt reactor suggesting either ongoing maintenance, refueling or preparations for renewed operations," Bermudez writes.

A "channel" in the Taeryong River linking the reactor's cooling tanks has also been cleared of ice since December and the snow on the roofs of the reactor has melted away, indicating the reactor and its "support buildings are occupied and at least minimally heated," according to the analysis of satellite imagery.

North Korea has vowed to never give up its nuclear weapons, and last week South Korea's defense ministry stated in its annual white paper the country has stockpiled about 110 pounds of plutonium in its arsenal and is making steady progress in the miniaturization of nuclear weapons.

The amount of plutonium North Korea currently holds is enough to make 7 to 12 nuclear weapons, with each weapon requiring 9 to 13 pounds of plutonium, according to Seoul.

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