Washington (CNN) — New satellite images obtained by CNN reveal that North Korea is expanding a key facility capable of enriching uranium for nuclear weaponsRenovations likely indicate that the country plans to significantly increase production at this previously inactive site in the near future, according to experts who analyzed the photos.
Images captured earlier this week by commercial imaging company Maxar show a uranium enrichment plant located within the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility complex, changes that could allow North Korea to increase production. of weapons-grade nuclear material by up to 25%, Jeffrey Lewis, a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, told CNN.
“The most recent expansion at Yongbyon likely reflects plans to increase production of nuclear materials for weapons purposes,” he added, noting that ongoing construction is consistent with previous efforts to add space at the facility, allowing it to house more centrifuges and therefore enrich more uranium every year.
“The new area is approximately 1,000 square meters, enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges. The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent,” Lewis said.
If North Korea upgraded the type of centrifuges currently used at this plant, “it could increase the plant’s capacity substantially,” he told CNN.
US officials are aware of recent activity at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant and acknowledge that these developments could be a sign of plans to increase production of weapons-grade uranium, according to two sources familiar with the situation. .
The National Security Council, the Department of Defense, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA declined to comment.
Indications that North Korea is making progress in producing this nuclear material are also consistent with US intelligence assessments of the country’s commitment to its weapons program, the sources said. The same is true of North Korea’s latest round of weapons testing, which includes the launch this Wednesday of two short-range ballistic missiles in waters off the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula, the sources added.
Initial analyzes also suggest that North Korea launched a missile launch over the weekend, three US officials told CNN, a day after it claimed to have tested a long-range cruise missile able to reach Japan.
Taken together, the activity has caused tensions to rise exponentially in what was already one of the most volatile regions on the planet.
State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday condemned North Korea’s missile launches and again called for a diplomatic approach to the matter.
“We have been very clear about what we want to happen. We are committed to the principle that dialogue will allow us to pursue our ultimate goal, which is simply the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Price said.
More concerns about the activity of a previously inactive facility
Evidence that North Korea is expanding the size of its uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyon probably also will exacerbate concerns stemming from a recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which said the country appears to have restarted a nuclear reactor in the same complex.
The report said these were the first indications of activity at the reactor since December 2018, calling North Korea’s nuclear activities “a cause for grave concern” and the new developments as “deeply disturbing.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reportedly offered to dismantle the Yongbyon compound in exchange for reduced sanctions during negotiations with former President Donald Trump in Hanoi in 2019. However, those talks failed in part because neither side was willing to give. Trump’s team wanted ballistic missiles or other nuclear sites to be included in the deal, and Kim refused to accept a trade from Yongbyon for less sanctions relief, John Bolton, a former national security adviser for the United States, wrote in his memoir. Trump.
Although the site appeared to be inactive until recently, US officials have widely anticipated that activity could resume.
US intelligence officials have publicly said they expect North Korea to remain a “weapons of mass destruction threat” for the foreseeable future, as Kim remains “firmly committed” to the country’s nuclear weapons.
Kim himself made it clear in January that developing smaller and lighter nuclear weapons for tactical uses and advancing the production of “large nuclear warheads” are two of North Korea’s top priorities.
“Achieving these goals will likely require North Korea to increase the amount of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium available for weapons production,” Lewis said.
Intelligence agencies have also assessed that Kim “may undertake a series of aggressive and potentially destabilizing actions to reshape the regional security environment and drive gaps between the United States and its allies, including the resumption of nuclear weapons and ICBM tests. (ICBM), “according to the intelligence community’s annual threat assessment released earlier this year.
Recent activity at Yongbyon and a series of missile tests by North Korea appear to validate both predictions, rekindling concern over the state of the country’s nuclear weapons program.
“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” says the IAEA report, referring to North Korea by its official acronym, Democratic People’s Republic of. Korea (DPRK).
A senior administration official told CNN late last month that the US is aware of the new report and “coordinates closely with our allies and partners on developments related to the DPRK.”
The senior official added: “This report underscores the urgent need for dialogue and diplomacy so that we can achieve the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. We continue to seek dialogue with the DPRK in order to address this reported activity and the full range of related issues. denuclearization “.
More criticism of Biden’s approach to North Korea
North Korea’s recent actions are also sparking fresh criticism of the Biden administration’s policy toward Pyongyang from Republicans in Congress.
“Considering the sorry record of the Biden-Harris administration, it is no wonder that Kim Jong Un now wants to be paid by President Biden. So he feels emboldened to resume missile testing and get the reactor back online. Yongbyon nuclear power plant, “Rep. Mike Rogers, top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement this week.
“We have to respond by strengthening alliances in the region, applying the sanctions regime and increasing our investment in missile defense,” he added.
Relations between the two adversaries have been cold since then, and both Washington and Pyongyang have focused on containing the COVID-19 threat since the pandemic swept the world in early 2020. North Korea’s borders remain closed to maintain the virus at bay, despite the repercussions on trade with China, an economic lifeline for the impoverished country. The Kim regime is now facing a food crisis.
President Biden’s administration has repeatedly tried to contact North Korea by email to initiate talks with Washington, a senior South Korean official with direct knowledge of the situation told CNN.
North Korea acknowledged that it received the emails, the official said, but did not feel compelled to respond due to what is seen as a lack of a detailed agenda or any serious indication that the United States is willing to move the conversation further. Beyond what was agreed at the first Trump / Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018.