North Korea continuing construction at plutonium production facility after Singapore summit

The Oregonian / YouTube North Korean leader Kim Jong Un...
The Oregonian / YouTube

Since the end of the Singapore meeting between Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, North Korea has been upgrading the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center used to manufacture plutonium for nuclear weapons. The analysis from the Stimson Center’s North Korea specialists at 38 North used imaging from commercial satellites to show how construction at the site had continued in the days following the agreement signed by Trump and Kim. 

New construction includes modifications to the cooling facility for the reactor, a new building near the Experimental Light Water Reactor, and an area of active construction showing trucks and cranes at work. The images, which were captured more than a week after the meeting between Trump and Kim, do not show any sign of work that would indicate North Korea is actively mothballing the facility, but instead show continued expansion. However, 38 North cautions that just because activity continues at Yongbyon, this doesn’t necessarily represent a signal that Kim intends to walk away from commitments that Trump claims to have obtained during their meeting.

Continued work at the Yongbyon facility should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize. The North’s nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang.

Though Trump’s immediate statements following his brief meeting with Kim included assurances that America could “sleep sound” and that the threat of nuclear war with North Korea “was over,” none of Trump’s statements seemed to be supported by documents actually signed in Singapore. More recently, the State Department has indicated that, weeks after that initial meeting, substantive negotiations with North Korea are just beginning. With no details yet agreed to, it might be expected that North Korea will continue, or even accelerate, development of facilities and nuclear capabilities.

Kim Jong Un returned from Singapore with a huge boost to his international status, a box full of compliments from Trump, a weakened international commitment to a harsh sanctions regime, the reassurance that the United States would turn a blind eye to any level of human rights abuse, and one of the top items on North Korea’s list of demands for decades: a halt to joint military preparedness exercises by the United States and South Korea. Donald Trump returned from Singapore with a piece of paper bearing Kim’s signature on a deal demonstrably weaker than one signed more than a decade earlier. It’s still unclear if North Korea will provide anything more.

Following his return from the one-day “summit,” Trump reported that Kim Jong Un had promised to begin dismantling nuclear facilities immediately, saying “I think that he will start that process right away.” Trump repeated these assurances during a cabinet meeting the following day. However, there does not yet seem to be any evidence that North Korea has begun such efforts, and since the actual signed agreement includes only a vague promise to “work towards” denuclearization, there would seem to be no reason that Trump should expect the kind of immediate actions he promised.

Improvements at Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility
Improvements at Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility, North Korea

A previous report at 38 North cited Yongbyon as the probable source of plutonium used for building North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and detailed the layout of the facility.

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