Even as China announced a new round of sanctions against its unruly client, North Korea, due to its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, international monitors have noted “suspicious activity” at the Yongbyong nuclear site. Also, South Korea complains that the North has been jamming its GPS navigation systems in a bid to raise tensions on the Korean peninsula even further.
China announced a ban on exports of jet fuel and rocket fuel components to North Korea on Tuesday, as well as banning imports on coal, iron, iron ore, gold, titanium, and rare earths, according to the UK Independent.
“While China’s restrictions allow some North Korean materials to be imported for civilian use, any trade connected to the North’s missile or nuclear programmes has been prohibited. For the UN sanctions to succeed, the cooperation of China — an ally of North Korea — has been viewed as essential,” the Independent reports.
“The mining sector is a key part of North Korea’s economy, which is already largely cut off from the rest of the world,” Reuters observed. “Experts believe revenue from the sector helps underwrite North Korea’s military expenditures.”
The North Korean coal industry is also vital, having delivered some 20 million tons of coal to China last year, a 27 percent increase for 2015 that made North Korea the third-largest supplier of coal to China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last week that “China and the U.S. have a responsibility to work together” on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
Meanwhile, Washington-based monitoring project 38 North said commercial satellite imagery revealed plumes of exhaust steam rising from the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory over the past five weeks, according to CNN.
“Exhaust plumes have rarely been seen there and none have been observed on any examined imagery this past winter,” said the report from 38 North. “The plumes suggest that the operators of the reprocessing facility are heating their buildings, perhaps indicating that some significant activity is being undertaken, or will be in the near future.”
Work also appears to have been done on the Experimental Light Water Reactor at the site, which would play an important role in enriching nuclear fuel. A number of new buildings with an unknown purpose have been constructed on the site.
The activity at Yongbyon is described as “suspicious” and “unusual,” but it is not clear if the plant is spinning up for nuclear weapons production. CNN notes that U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has estimated that plutonium could be recovered from the spent fuel rods in the Yongbyon reactor “within a matter of weeks to months.”
On Tuesday, a senior South Korean government official said his government has determined North Korea is now capable of mounting nuclear warheads on its medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles, which can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan, according to the New York Times.
North Korea has been claiming it had this capability for some time, but until now, South Korean and U.S. intelligence have been skeptical of the claim. North Korea recently test-launched two Rodong missiles, in defiance of United Nations resolutions, but the South Korean official said his government has no evidence that nuclear-tipped Rodong missiles have been deployed yet.
There is much debate over how far Pyongyang might be from deploying a long–range ICBM that could deliver a nuclear payload to the United States. The general consensus is that such technology is still several years away, although the New York Times mentions Admiral William E. Gortney’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the North Koreans have a small chance of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile now.
In another sign of rising tensions on the peninsula, South Korea complains that North Korea began disrupting GPS navigation signals near the city of Incheon and its surrounding provinces last Thursday.
Yonhap News reports the South Korean Ministry of Science, ICT, and Future Planning said, “746 airplanes and 621 vessels experienced disruptions, but no significant damage has been reported so far.”
The North’s jamming signals also have the potential to make cell phones malfunction, according to the Ministry of Science.
The Defense Ministry said these provocative actions have not yet impacted the South Korean military but warned Pyongyang that it will “pay a due price” if the sabotage doesn’t stop, according to Yonhap.