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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Lewis and Hansen on Yongbyon

by | June 12th, 2013 | 07:00 am

No sooner had the Central Committee Plenum rolled out the “byungjin” line of developing both nuclear weapons and the economy than signals were sent that the regime was serious. In a story in April DailyNK quoted a spokesperson for the General Department of Atomic Energy that “all nuclear facilities at Yongbyon including the uranium enrichment plant, along with the 5MW graphite reactor…will be re-equipped and restarted.” This was in addition to progress being made on the experimental light water reactor (ELWR), which has been in full-gear over the last year; Jeffrey Lewis and Nick Hansen offered up an assessment of those developments in early May. Their estimate: that the reactor could be at full throttle within a year.

The two are now back at 38North with a new entry that updates developments at the site based on fresh satellite imagery. According to Lewis and Hansen, work appears well-advanced on facilities needed to restart the 5 MWe reactor, the likely source of the plutonium used in the first two and probably third nuclear tests. In particular, they note the installation of a new secondary cooling system for the reactor following the much-ballyhooed destruction of the cooling tower in 2008. Even at the time, critics pointed out that the destruction of the cooling tower was not a step that marked irreversible dismantlement of the regime’s capability, but at best a trust-building and even symbolic gesture. Lewis and Hansen put an even shorter fuse on the timeline for restarting the 5MWe reactor of only 1-2 months.

The 38 North story got global play. However, as they acknowledge, the crucial unknown for both the 5MWe reactor and the ELWR is the availability of fuel; a post at New Focus International raises the interesting possibility that all of this activity could be a ruse. The fuel fabrication facility at Yangbyon did indeed produce the approximately 8,000 fuel rods that were ultimately discharged from the 5MWe reactor, put in storage, and taken out of storage and reprocessed in 2003. But it is unclear whether new rods have been milled since 1994. When Sig Hecker visit the fuel fabrication site in 2010, at least part of it had been converted to a uranium enrichment facility.  Enrichment is obviously one important step for developing reactor fuel, and possibly a second source of fissile material. Satellite imagery at the site shows a lot of activity, including new buildings near the previous fuel fabrication facility that are probably devoted to the purpose. But we actually don’t know how far away they are from fueling the reactors, nor whether they have even mastered the ELWR they have built. We only know for sure that the appearance of progress is strategically useful.