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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Satellites in Action 1: Watching Yongbyon

by | February 14th, 2014 | 07:00 am

Over the last year—and accelerating over the last several months—we have seen an outpouring of significant work on North Korea using satellite imagery. Some of these efforts—most notably a series of publications from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea—have tracked changes in the prison camp system. Today, we look at the findings coming from two sources on developments at Yongbyon: SAIS’s 38North and the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). As the charm offensive takes shape, these posts offer a sobering reminder of how deeply North Korea has committed to its nuclear and missile programs, and correspondingly, how expensive it is going to be to roll them back. Today we look–quite literally–at Yongbyon. Next week, we look at some very interesting posts on the nuclear test and missile launch sites as well as a remarkable reconstruction of a facility for the manufacture of transporter-erector-launchers (TELs).

In the wake of the announcement of the “byungjin” line of simultaneously pursuing economic development and the nuclear program, North Korea also announced in April—through the General Department of Atomic Energy–its intention to “adjust” the uses of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. This “adjustment” meant “restarting all the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon including uranium enrichment plant and 5MW graphite moderated reactor.” Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis almost immediately noted new construction at the site, probably related to cooling.

At almost exactly the same time in September, both David Albright and Robert Avagyan at ISIS and Hansen and Lewis at 38North reached the conclusion that the North Koreans had probably restarted the 5MW reactor, pointing to such signs as the venting of steam. In a post a month later, Nick Hansen noted the discharge of water that substituted for the blown-up cooling tower, also taken as confirmatory evidence of the restart.

Earlier, Albright and Avagyan had summarized developments with respect to enrichment. They noted a near doubling of floorspace at the centrifuge facility. They pointed out that this did not mean a doubling of output of fissile material because at least some portion of the enrichment was LEU destined for the new light-water reactor, which the satellite imagery also captured quite clearly (the succession of 38North posts on the construction of the reactor begin in November 2011 and continue in May 2012 and May 2013.) By August, both teams reported that the exterior of the reactor appeared to be complete.

In early December, Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini analyzed images taken by Digital Globe and summarized developments at all of the facilities as of that time: activity at what used to be called the fuel fabrication plant; the centrifuge facility and adjacent to it; the 5MW and new LW reactors; and new buildings of unknown use. The bottom line: a lot of work was going forward at the site.

In late December, Nick Hansen provided a a very detailed post that reached two conclusions. The first was the identification of a probable fuel fabrication plant for the 5 MW reactor located in the old pilot fuel fabrication plant that fell into disuse in the 1980s. Renovation of the main building in this complex began in 2009—in the wake of the second test–and the facility has been operating since 2010. Hansen also identified a possible fuel assembly plant for the LWR built in 2013 just north of the pilot fuel fabrication facility.

The administration’s official intelligence assessment of these developments was outlined in James Clapper’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee at the end of January (in .pdf). The conclusion: “North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding the size of its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the reactor that was previously used for plutonium production.” Of course, it will take several years before fuel rods can be removed for reprocessing and North Korea can add to its stock of fissile material through this route. But as the charm offensive moves forward, this satellite analysis is a reminder that the nuclear program appears in full swing.