North Korean plant may be building nuclear components, report finds
A North Korean plant originally suspected as a site for uranium enrichment may actually be producing components for nuclear weapons, according to an independent research report released Friday.
The report, published by the 38 North project based at the nonpartisan international security think tank the Stimson Center, found that satellite imagery recently taken of a cluster of buildings at Kangson, located just southwest of Pyongyang, indicated that the facility is making components for centrifuges, the spinners used to enrich uranium, rather than enriching the uranium itself.
“The characteristics of the site are more consistent with a plant that could manufacture components for centrifuges,” former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official Olli Heinonen wrote in the report, which was also reviewed by Reuters before its release Friday.
“The available evidence suggests that Kangson is not a uranium enrichment plant, although it is likely still tied to North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, just in a different role,” he continued. “Its characteristics are consistent with a large-scale machine tool workshop suitable for the production and testing of centrifuge components.”
This comes as North Korea has repeatedly denied having secret nuclear sites, which contributed to the failure of talks at a 2019 Hanoi summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“If the issue of undeclared facilities is going to be a factor in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, as it was in Hanoi, the more we can learn about these suspected facilities, the better we can assess their role and value to North Korea’s overall nuclear weapons development,” Jenny Town, deputy director of 38 North, told Reuters.
However, Heinonen added in the report that the “true function of the Kangson complex can only be established by an on-site inspection,” something inhibited by the North Korean government’s secrecy and tight control over its internal affairs.
Last month, a South Korean official told Reuters that North Korea was building two new submarines, one of which was capable of carrying ballistic missiles.
North Korean state media showed Kim inspecting a new submarine as early as June of last year, according to Reuters. Information on the vessel’s weapons system was not shared, but analysts said the size of it indicated it was meant to carry missiles.
The North Korean economy has reportedly been significantly destabilized as a result of continued U.S.-led sanctions over its weapons programs. The administration of President-elect Joe Biden could signal a change in approach to North Korea’s nuclear development, though Kim has so far remained silent on Biden’s win.
Experts have debated whether North Korea will resume major missile tests as it has during past government transitions as a means to increase leverage in negotiations.