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N. Korea Shows Signs of Reprocessing Activity at Its Yongbyon's Radiochemistry Laboratory
By Victor Cha
CSIS Korea Chair
Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in North Korea
Key Findings

•A March 30, 2021 satellite image shows steam emitting from both a small building within the Yongbyon Radiochemistry Laboratory and from its associated thermal plant.

•This follows activity previously observed at the thermal power plant during the past four weeks.

•The radiochemistry laboratory is used to reprocess spent fuel rods to extract plutonium for use in nuclear weapons.

•Steam (or smoke) rising from any of the stacks within the radiochemistry laboratory itself is not often observed in commercial satellite imagery, but the March 30 image shows a plume of steam or smoke emanating from a small support building in the center of the facility. This, while not an indicator of a reprocessing campaign itself, indicates that the building is occupied and being heated.

•Imagery also shows the storage pens at the thermal power plant have been filled during the past two weeks.

•This activity is observed following short-range ballistic missile and cruise missile tests in Q1 of 2020. Beyond Parallel data show that early provocations in a new U.S. administration have been a longtime pressure tactic by North Korea.

•Probable reasons for this activity are preparations for, or the start of, a new reprocessing campaign, a strategic political move by Kim Jong-un to continue slowly ratcheting up pressure on both the Biden administration and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, or a combination of both.

A satellite image of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility acquired on March 30, 2021 shows continued activity at the radiochemistry laboratory (the facility used to reprocess spent fuel rods) and its associated thermal power plant that may indicate preparations for, or the start of, a new reprocessing campaign. This follows activity previously observed at the thermal power plant during the past four weeks.

This activity, taken in combination with short-range ballistic missile and cruise missile tests since January, may all be components of a strategic political move by Kim Jong-un to continue slowly ratcheting up pressure on both the new administration of President Joe Biden and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, or a combination of both.

Steam (or smoke) rising from any of the stacks within the radiochemistry laboratory itself is not often observed in commercial satellite imagery. The present image, however, shows a small, wispy plume of steam or smoke emanating from a small support building in the center of the facility immediately east of the main processing halls.

This, while not an indicator of a reprocessing campaign itself, indicates that the building is occupied and being heated.

At the thermal power plant, a small, wispy plume of steam (or smoke) is observed rising from the plant’s exhaust stack and imagery shows the plant’s storage pens have been filled during the past two weeks.

No activity of significance is noted to indicate that the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR), 5MWe Reactor or IRT-DPRK (a modified IRT-2000 reactor) are operational. For example, there is no steam plume rising from the 5MWe turbine and electric generator hall.

Additionally, no activity of significance is noted at the centrifuge plant or the center’s railroad yards. Minor activity (e.g., construction work, vehicle movements, personnel movements, rail activity) is, however, noted throughout the facility. This level of activity is similar to that observed during early spring in many previous years.

The above article was co-written by Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. He is an internationally recognized analyst, award-winning author, and lecturer on North Korean defense and intelligence affairs and ballistic missile development in developing countries. He is concurrently senior fellow for Imagery Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Security (CSIS); senior adviser and imagery analyst for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK); author for IHS Markit (formerly the Jane’s Information Group); and publisher and editor of KPA Journal.
Formerly, he has served as founder and CEO of KPA Associates, LLC, senior imagery analyst for 38 North at Johns Hopkins SAIS, chief analytics officer and co-founder of AllSource Analysis, Inc., and senior all-source analyst for DigitalGlobe’s Analysis Center.

Victor Cha is senior vice president and the inaugural holder of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.



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Dr. Victor Cha is Korea Chair of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). He earned his MA from Oxford, and Ph.D. from Columbia. Many books he authored include the award-winning author of "Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle." As prolific writers of articles on int'l relations in such journals as Foreign Affairs and The Washington Quarterly, he also interacts frequently with CNN, NYT, and Washington Post as well as Korean media.

 

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