North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon are operational, the director of its Atomic Energy Institute said Tuesday via the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA).
This includes its uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite-moderated reactor, he said.
The report stated that the U.S.’ hostile policy toward the North has forced it to obtain nuclear weapons, and scientists and technicians are working to upgrade its production day by day.
Chae Gyu-chul, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul said North Korea is trying to expand the IRT 2000 reactor, imported from the Soviet Union in 1963 for research purposes. Originally rated at 2 megawatts thermal (MWth), the reactor was expanded to 4MWth in 1974, and then to 8MWth the late 1980s.
Currently, North Korea can produce 6-7 kilograms of plutonium from a 5MW graphite-moderated reactor, enough to produce one nuclear weapon annually.
“It seems that North Korea will upgrade its plutonium-producing procedures to make more nuclear weapons,” Chae told NK News.
Satellite analysis from 38 North has in recent months indicated the facility may have been partially restarted, after periods of full or partial shut down. Speculation on the site’s activity has continued since a 2013 announcement which also claimed it was operational.
In January this year analysis of satellite imagery led 38 North to believe the site had been reactivated after a possible five-month period when there was little or no visible activity at the site.
In early September a further 38 North report noted increased activity at the site, indicating North Korea could be preparing to unload spent fuel rods from the reactor for the purpose of producing new plutonium.
One expert cast doubt on the North’s claims, calling their announcement “bombastic self-promotion” designed to restore confidence following the “humiliating stand-down” that concluded last month’s confrontation over artillery firings and propaganda broadcasts at the DMZ.
“From overhead satellite imagery, it is clear that the nuclear facilities have not all been operating normally since April 2013,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the International Institute for Security Studies’ Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program. “We shouldn’t empower North Korea by believing it has been otherwise. Neither can we ignore, of course, the real developments that North Korea has been making in its nuclear program, including the expansion of the enrichment plant and resumed production of plutonium. The nuclear threat is certainly growing – just not as much as Pyongyang would like us to believe.”
Daniel Pinkston, visiting research fellow at the Conflict Studies Center from Babes-Bolyai University, also said it’s far from clear what the North’s capabilities are.
“They have made progress on the construction but no one knows if or when they will be able to load fuel rods into the reactor and begin operating it,” he said. “Most analysts, including myself, believe the DPRK has at least one more uranium enrichment plant at a clandestine underground facility dedicated to military applications.
“The statement published by the KCNA is not surprising at all and very consistent with past statements that conform with Songun (military-first) ideology and the Byungjin (dual-development of the economy and nuclear program) line.”
The report comes after Monday’s announcement in North Korean state media indicating a potential satellite launch.
Leo Byrne contributed to this report.
Featured image: U.S. Department of Energy, via Wikipedia Commons
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Featured Image: North Korea nuclear bomb Pyongyang by Eric Lafforgue on 2008-09-12 14:31:02