North Korea Allegedly Ramping Up Powerful Nuclear Reactor Construction Amid Rising Tensions With US
© AP Photo / Lee Jin-manA TV screen showing a news program reporting on North Korea's missile launch with file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, May 4, 2022.
© AP Photo / Lee Jin-man
North Korea has recently stepped up its defense program, having conducted 16 missile test launches this year alone, some of which are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. Pyongyang's nuclear program is a matter of serious concern to its southern neighbor Seoul and the US, both of which are also building up their military presence in the region.
North Korea has allegedly resumed construction at a long-dormant nuclear reactor in recent weeks, which, if completed, would be capable of increasing its capacity to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, CNN reported on Friday, citing new satellite images.
According to the report, experts from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies indicated North Korea has restarted construction on the second reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear site after several years of dormancy. The group had reviewed the satellite images taken by Maxar in April and May of this year.
The pictures obtained by CNN show what Jeffrey Lewis, who serves as a weapons expert and professor at the Middlebury Institute, described as "the first unambiguous indicator that North Korea is moving to complete the reactor," whose construction was halted in 1994.
North Korea is "connecting the secondary cooling loop of the 50 MW(e) reactor to a pumphouse on the river," he reportedly said of the Maxar photos.
"In the image dated April 20, construction equipment is visible, as are what appear to be pipe segments. By May 7, North Korea had buried the pipe," Lewis added. "The connection of the cooling loop helps explain other activities seen at the 50MW(e) reactor in recent years."
The expert added that a facility thought to contain a spent fuel cooling pond was witnessed being demolished last year.
"Connecting the secondary cooling loop suggests, in hindsight, that the demolition of the apparent spent-fuel building was an early sign that North Korea intends to complete construction of the reactor," he said.
The reactor is approximately ten times larger than Yongbyon's current nuclear reactor, which has been operational since the late 1980s, according to the report.
Experts reportedly admitted, however, that it is quite difficult to predict how quickly North Korea will finish building the reactor. But, according to Lewis, once operational, it might allow North Korea to raise its plutonium output for nuclear weapons by a factor of ten.
According to an anonymous source, US intelligence officials are also aware of and are closely monitoring recent activities at Yongbyon, and North Korea is not trying to hide its efforts to restart construction on the reactor in question. Such activities are believed to be an outward display of North Korea's nuclear progress and goals, with additional building on the Yongbyon reactor aligning with Pyongyang's goal of establishing itself as a nuclear-armed state.
Under the terms of a 1994 deal with the United States, North Korea suspended the construction of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. According to Lewis, the reactor was still years away from completion at the time.
North Korea could begin underground nuclear testing in the near future, according to US military and intelligence officials. The DPRK authorities are reportedly preparing for a test at another facility, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site, and might be ready by the end of May.
If North Korea conducts an underground nuclear test, it will be the country's eighth and first in nearly five years.