N. Korea improves nuclear complex amid negotiations, report says
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 27, 2018
SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea is making improvements to its main nuclear complex “at a rapid pace,” a report said, even as the communist state engages in diplomatic efforts over its weapons programs.
The findings come after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s agreement to the “complete denuclearization” of the peninsula during his June 12 summit with President Donald Trump.
The report by 38 North, a website devoted to analysis of North Korea, which was posted Tuesday, stressed that the ongoing efforts at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center “should not be seen as having any relationship” to North Korea’s denuclearization pledge.
But the continued activity underscored concerns that the North has not agreed to any concrete measures or timelines in negotiations so far.
“The North’s nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang,” said the analysis by experts Frank Pabian, Joseph Bermudez Jr. and Jack Liu.
Commercial satellite images taken June 21 showed that modifications to the cooling system of Yongbyon’s 5-megawatt plutonium production reactor that began in March appear complete, according to 38 North.
It said the water discharge from an outfall pipe was less than previously observed, making it difficult to determine the reactor’s operational status.
The June 21 images also show at least two new buildings and continued construction on support facilities throughout operational areas at the complex, especially at an experimental light water reactor, or ELWR, 38 North said.
“The necessary infrastructure for reactor operations at the ELWR appears externally complete, but there is no visible evidence yet to suggest that operations have begun,” it said.
The light water reactor is designed to provide electricity for civilian purposes but could also produce fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The report also said a radiochemical laboratory, used to separate plutonium from spent fuel, seems active with trucks parked nearby and coal bins at an associated thermal plant appearing somewhat depleted, suggesting continued operations.
Tensions have ebbed amid the uptick in diplomatic efforts to persuade the North to abandon its nuclear weapons. But the country demonstrated strong advances in its program by test-firing three intercontinental ballistic missiles and conducting its sixth and most powerful nuclear test last year.
Kim Jong Un has suspending the testing program – the last missile test was on Nov. 28 – and the North blew up its nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri on the east coast. But experts have expressed skepticism about the significance of those moves since Kim also has declared his country a nuclear state.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said last week that “complete denuclearization is the goal” and included the Yongbyon complex in her definition.
“Complete denuclearization means weapons, materials, facilities and plants, and that would include the Yongbyon complex,” she told reporters in Seoul.