Recent satellite images show North Korea is expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex, a sign that it is intent on boosting the production of bomb materials, experts say.
The assessment comes after North Korea last week raised tensions with its first missile tests in six months amid long-dormant nuclear disarmament negotiations with the US.
“The expansion of the enrichment plant probably indicates that North Korea plans to increase its production of weapons-grade uranium at the Yongbyon site by as much as 25 percent,” Jeffrey Lewis and two other experts at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey said in a report.
The report said the photos taken by satellite imagery company Maxar showed construction in an area adjoining the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon.
It said a satellite image taken on Sept. 1 showed that North Korea had cleared trees and prepared the ground for construction, and that an excavator was also visible.
The report said a second image taken on Tuesday showed a wall erected to enclose the area, work on a foundation and panels removed from the side of the enrichment building to provide access to the newly enclosed area.
The new area is approximately 1,000m2, enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges, which would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent, the report said.
Nuclear weapons can be built using either highly enriched uranium or plutonium, and North Korea has facilities to produce both at Yongbyon.
Last month, earlier satellite photos of the area showed signs that North Korea was resuming the operation of other facilities to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea calls the Yongbyon complex “the heart” of its nuclear program.
During a summit with then-US president Donald Trump in early 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to dismantle the entire complex if he was given major sanctions relief.
However, the US rejected Kim’s proposal because it viewed it as a limited denuclearization step.
Some US and South Korean experts speculate North Korea is covertly running at least one additional uranium-enrichment plant.
In 2018, a senior South Korean official told the legislature in Seoul that North Korea was estimated to have already manufactured up to 60 nuclear weapons.
Estimates on how many nuclear weapons North Korea can add every year vary, ranging from six to as many as 18 bombs.
Last week, North Korea launched ballistic and cruise missiles toward the sea in tests seen as an effort to diversity its missile forces and strengthen its attack capability on South Korea and Japan, where a total of 80,000 US troops are based.
Experts say that both types of missiles could be armed with nuclear warheads.
Kim has threatened to bolster the North’s nuclear arsenal and acquire more sophisticated weapons unless Washington drops its hostility against his country, an apparent reference to US-led sanctions and its regular military drills with Seoul.
However, Kim still maintains his self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles directly targeting the US mainland, suggesting that he wants to keep chances for future diplomacy with Washington alive.
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