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SEOUL — North Korea appears to have doubled the space available for uranium enrichment at one of its nuclear complexes, raising the possibility it has stepped up production of weapons-grade uranium even as relations with South Korea and the U.S. have warmed in recent months.

However, the Institute for Science and International Security — which reported this week on the building expansion at the Yongbyon complex revealed by recent satellite imagery — cautioned there is no way of knowing conclusively how active the nuclear weapons program might be in the cloistered country.

“Estimating North Korea’s level of uranium enrichment, in particular estimating the amount of weapon-grade uranium it has produced, is fraught with uncertainty,” the Washington, D.C.-based think tank said.

“A significant question remains whether North Korea has made weapon-grade uranium, and if so, how much it has made,” the report said.

After weeks of heightened tensions early this year, North Korea has taken a decidedly more conciliatory approach to relations with South Korea and the U.S. of late.

For example, this week North Korea agreed to meet in the days ahead with South Korean officials to discuss the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex — a jointly run facility just north of the Demilitarized Zone where 53,000 North Koreans provide cheap labor for about 125 South-owned businesses.

The Kaesong Industrial Complex closed in April, at the height of the most recent exchange of heated rhetoric between the North and South.

The Institute for Science and International Security report, by David Albright and Robert Avagyan, said the construction of the centrifuge building extension appears to have started in March, just prior to the North’s announcement that it planned “readjusting and restarting all the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon including (the) uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor.”

By doubling the available floor space at the facility, the report said, North Korea “could in theory” double the 2,000 centrifuges it said it had there in 2010.

“A … realistic estimate is that doubling the capacity would allow for an increase in the production of enough weapon-grade uranium for up to two nuclear weapons per year,” the institute’s report said. “As mentioned previously, however, it is not known if North Korea intends to produce weapon-grade uranium in this facility.”

Given the lack of available information about the North’s nuclear program, the institute reported last year that, “North Korea could have produced enough weapon-grade uranium for anywhere from 0-13 nuclear weapons.”

rabiroff.jon@stripes.com


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