Recent satellite images show North Korea is expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, a sign that it is intent on boosting the production of bomb materials, experts say.
A report from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey said photos taken by satellite imagery company Maxar showed construction in an area adjoining the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon.
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“The expansion of the enrichment plant probably indicates that North Korea plans to increase its production of weapons-grade uranium at the Yongbyon site by as much as 25 percent,” Jeffrey Lewis and two other experts at the institute said in their report.
North Korea recently announced its first ballistic missile tests in six months with nuclear negotiations with the United States stalled since 2019.
The Middlebury report said a satellite image taken on September 1 showed North Korea cleared trees and prepared the ground for construction, and that a construction excavator was also visible. The report said a second image taken two weeks later showed a wall had been built to enclose the area, and panels removed from the side of the enrichment building to provide access to the newly enclosed area.
The new area is approximately 1,000 square metres (10,760 square feet), enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges, which would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent, the report said.
Nuclear weapons can be built using either highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and North Korea has facilities to produce both at Yongbyon. Last month, earlier satellite photos of Yongbyon showed signs that North Korea was resuming the operation of other facilities to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea calls the Yongbyon complex “the heart” of its nuclear programme.
During a summit with then-President Donald Trump in early 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle the entire complex if he was given major sanctions relief. The proposal was rejected.
Some US and South Korean experts believe North Korea is covertly running at least one additional uranium enrichment plant. In 2018, a top South Korean official told parliament that North Korea was estimated to have already manufactured as many as 60 nuclear weapons as well.
Estimates on how many nuclear weapons North Korea can add every year vary, ranging from six to as many as 18.
As well as the ballistic missile tests, North Korea also said it launched cruise missiles towards the sea in tests seen as an effort to strengthen its attack capability on South Korea and Japan, where the US has about 80,000 soldiers.
Experts say the long-range missile, which Pyongyang described as “strategic“, could be armed with nuclear warheads.
President Joe Biden completed a months-long review of US policy on North Korea in May, saying it would continue to seek denuclearisation on the Korean Peninsula but would not pursue any “grand bargain” with Pyongyang.
North Korea has accused the US of continuing “hostility” threatening to expand its nuclear arsenal and develop more sophisticated weaponry.