Just because the Hermit Kingdom might be on the brink of starvation doesn’t mean the Kim regime won’t keep building up its nuclear weapons capabilities.
Case in point: North Korea conducted several tests at its Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research center between December 2020 and February 2021, according to the draft of a United Nations report that is scheduled to be released in full in September. The report, written by the U.N. Panel of Experts working as part of the Security Council Committee that oversees sanctions resolutions levied against North Korea, cites an analysis of the site which suggests that the Yongbyon facility is active. The final report will be released following discussion and amendments by the U.N. Security Council, and its findings could be used as the basis for a decision to pursue new sanctions resolutions against either individuals or organizations found to be in violation of existing U.N. resolutions.
Activity at Yongbyon
Per the report, North Korea conducted several tests at its Yongbyon nuclear facility between December 2020 and February 2021, though the report does not provide any specific details about the nature of these tests. In addition, the report finds that “the external construction of a light water reactor seems to be complete,” while also noting that “installation of machinery is likely in progress.” The report further states that the Yongbyon facility’s 5-megawatt nuclear reactor appears to remain inactive.
Satellite imagery analysis of Yongbyon in recent months has suggested that some activity has taken place at the facility. These images reveal that the facility’s Radiochemistry Laboratory, the associated thermal plant, and the centrifuge plant restarted activities at some point in early March. Little activity in recent months and years has been observed at the Radiochemistry Lab, and while it is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty precisely what is taking place at the facility, analysts believe it may indicate a renewed plutonium reprocessing campaign or, at the very least, a demonstration or reminder that such a campaign could be undertaken at some point in the future. Such a campaign would add to North Korea’s inventory of fissile material needed for the production of nuclear weapons.
The Yongbyon facility has long been an important component of North Korea’s nuclear program, and since the competition in 1986 of the 5MWe reactor has been the main source for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. The reactor is capable of producing up to six kilograms of plutonium per year, but has not been active since 2018.
In addition, a Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP) was revealed at Yongbyon in 2010, and has been gradually expanded in the years since. The UEP at Yongbyon might have produced as much as 540 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium by the end of 2020, and is now likely the central component of North Korea’s production of fissile material needed for nuclear weapons. North Korea is believed to have additional uranium enrichment facilities elsewhere in the country.
The dismantling of the Yongbyon facility in exchange for the complete lifting of sanctions levied against North Korea was offered by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the 2019 summit meeting in Hanoi, though the offer was rejected by former U.S. President Donald Trump. Discussions about the facility are likely during any future nuclear negotiations between North Korea and the United States.
DPRK Nuclear Arsenal
North Korea is believed to have stockpiled enough fissile material for the production of between 40 and 50 nuclear weapons, though the number could be as high as 60. The DPRK is also believed to be in possession of between 10 and 20 fully assembled nuclear warheads.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is likely to continue to grow in the coming years, with one report suggesting that the arsenal could grow to as much as 151 to 242 nuclear weapons by 2027.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has further outlined a list of objectives related to the continued development of the country’s strategic weapons capability including the development of a “super-large hydrogen bomb,” and has also identified the development of tactical nuclear weapons as a priority. North Korea in March tested a short-range ballistic missile that analysts have suggested could be a viable candidate for mounting tactical nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s continued nuclear activities, including those reported to be taking place at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, highlight the ongoing challenge associated with efforts designed to reduce the threat posed by the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.