Satellites have detected increased activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear test site, possibly indicating that one or two new nuclear reactors are close to coming online. If these findings are verified, the reactors could prove capable of creating weapons-grade nuclear material.
The Associated Press notes that these findings “come at a particularly sensitive time,” as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un prepares for high-stakes denuclearization summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump. Refraining from nuclear or missile testing has been a vital condition for North Korea to observe as this fragile diplomatic process moves forward.
Analysts concede it is difficult to tell exactly what is happening at Yongbyon based solely on satellite photos, but the best guess is that a new light-water reactor is undergoing preliminary tests and could suddenly become operational this year or in 2019. The North Koreans have long insisted this reactor is intended to provide electricity for civilian use.
Potentially even more troubling are indications of a second reactor, which appears to be generating steam despite efforts to hide it from satellites. This reactor is said to be more powerful and more likely capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. In fact, analysts believe North Korea is poised to quadruple its plutonium production with these facilities.
“While experts clash over how soon the North will develop warheads that can survive the blistering heats of re-entry, they agree that the North has already mastered the art of using reactors to make plutonium,” the New York Times observed on Tuesday.
The Times quoted President Trump’s new National Security Adviser John Bolton to the effect that as long as the enormous Yongbyon facility is operational it would be difficult to trust denuclearization promises from North Korea, since it would never be far from restarting the reactor and producing nuclear bomb materials. Bolton has suggested destroying the Yongbyon reactor the way Israel took out comparably dangerous facilities in Syria and Iraq.
Analysis of satellite imagery has revealed structures consistent with electrical production from the site, suggesting that North Korea has been racing to completion so it can portray the reactors as established facts on the ground, which civilians rely upon for power. Denuclearization talks will presumably include requirements that North Korea accept international inspectors to carefully monitor activity at the reactor, a demand the North Koreans have always refused.
Reuters notes that it could be politically difficult for Kim to accept such conditions now, since his regime has been telling its people for years that (a) its nuclear program is entirely peaceful, and also (b) its nuclear weapons are a “treasured sword of justice” that the regime is divinely entitled to wield against the hostile United States and puppet governments like South Korea and Japan. For this reason, Kim will want a deal that makes it look as if the West is “surrendering” to him, so he magnanimously begins to scale back nuclear weapons activity, because he has achieved his objectives and decided further research and development are unnecessary.
Another sticking point mentioned by Reuters is that North Koreans tend to view nuclear arms as a sacred crusade Kim inherited from his father and grandfather, so he has a legacy obligation to keep pushing until there are reliable long-range nuclear missiles in Pyongyang’s inventory. This would explain why Kim has been floating the idea that his father and grandfather secretly dreamed of denuclearization.