Skip to main content

Satellite images suggest North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor restarted

By Madison Park, CNN
updated 6:27 AM EDT, Thu September 12, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers point to steam at North Korean facility
  • They write that it's a sign that the reactor is near or in operation
  • North Korea has opened, shut, re-opened, reshut this reactor before
  • North Korea said in April it would restart nuclear facility in April

Hong Kong (CNN) -- Satellite images of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility have again raised questions about whether the country has restarted its plutonium production reactor -- regarded by western experts as a key component in the development of a nuclear weapon.

Researchers from U.S.-based groups examined satellite images from August 31. They showed two columns of steam rising from a building, believed to house the reactor's steam turbines and electric generators.

The steam indicates that the reactor is in or nearing operation, wrote Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, in a 38 North blog post, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS.

Work to reopen the reactor progressed throughout this spring and summer, they wrote.

"This is something they (North Koreans) very much need to arm their arsenal, and that is really linked into what they see as marketing power on the international plane," Jasper Kim, founder of Asia-Pacific Global Research Group, told CNN.

"Without this type of nuclear capability, or at least the perception of the threat of having nuclear capabilities, North Korea really has few bargaining chips."

But Pyongyang has gone down this path before.

On China: Preventing a nuclear N. Korea
NK nuclear weapons "a matter of time"

First completed in the 1980s, North Korea agreed to shut the Yongbyon facility in 1994 after backing down from a threat to withdraw from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. It restarted the reactor in 2002, before it was once again disabled in 2007 after a six-party agreement between China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia.

In April this year, North Korea stated that it would be "readjusting and restarting all the nuclear facilities" in Yongbyon, which includes the uranium enrichment plant and the reactor, the country's state-run news agency KCNA said.

"This work will be put into practice without delay," the North Korean report stated at the time.

Analysts say it appears North Korea has fulfilled its word.

David Albright and Robert Avagyan, from the Institute for Science and International Security, examined the latest satellite images and agreed the venting appeared most likely connected to the operation of the reactor.

They also wrote last month that North Korea appeared to have greatly expanded a building used in the uranium enrichment process.

The expansions and developments "provide North Korea with the ability to expand its stocks of plutonium, as well as produce more highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons," wrote Albright and Avagyan.

They estimated that North Korea would likely need two to three years to produce plutonium, which is essential in creating nuclear weapons.

"There remains time to negotiate a shutdown of the reactor before North Korea can use any of this new plutonium in nuclear weapons" they added. "If a shutdown is achieved in the next six months, the reactor would have produced very little plutonium."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed April 2, 2014
Experts warn that under Kim Jong Un's rule, Pyongyang has shown an even greater willingness to raise the stakes than before.
updated 9:14 AM EDT, Tue March 18, 2014
China and North Korea criticize a U.N. report that found crimes against humanity committed in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Mon March 17, 2014
Megumi Yokota was only 13 when she was abducted by a North Korean agent in the 1970s. What happened after that?
updated 12:30 AM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
Report: North Korea uses multiple techniques to defy sanctions, and shows no signs of abandoning its nuclear missile programs.
updated 3:17 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
Families torn apart for more than 60 years -- separated by the Korean War -- began to reunite at a mountain resort in North Korea Thursday.
updated 6:50 AM EST, Tue February 18, 2014
A stunning catalog of torture and the widespread abuse of even the weakest of North Koreans reveal a portrait of a brutal state, the UN reported.
updated 11:31 PM EST, Mon February 17, 2014
Former prisoners in North Korea describe horrific stories of being tortured by authorities.
updated 10:27 AM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Skiing is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about the isolated nation, but North Korea's ski resort is world class.
updated 10:15 PM EST, Fri February 7, 2014
American Kenneth Bae, who is being held in North Korea, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp.
updated 9:13 PM EST, Tue January 7, 2014
Why is he being held by North Korea in a prison camp? These are the questions for many since his arrest in the isolated country in 2012.
updated 3:18 AM EST, Mon January 27, 2014
The first time the South Korean factory owner watched his North Korean employees nibble on a Choco Pie, they appeared shocked.
updated 8:26 PM EST, Tue January 7, 2014
Dennis Rodman's "Big Bang in Pyongyang" may be in a league of its own, but other stars too have mixed with repressive regimes before.
updated 1:00 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea to train basketball players, state-run media reports.
updated 9:50 PM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
The nation held a memorial in the honor of former North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il on the second anniversary of his death.
updated 10:58 AM EST, Fri December 13, 2013
Days after he was removed from his powerful military post, Jang Song Thaek was called a traitor and executed.
ADVERTISEMENT