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 7:24 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As soon as word broke that "The Interview" will hit some theaters, celebrations erupted across social media -- including from the stars of the film.
updated 1:44 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Did a rogue hacker -- or the U.S. government -- cut the cord for the regime's Internet?
updated 3:22 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
The United States and North Korea have long been locked in a bitter cycle of tensions. But the current cyber conflict may be especially hard to predict.
updated 1:49 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
A defector from the North Korean government says the country's cyberwarfare is more dangerous than its nuclear weaponry.
updated 8:27 AM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
North Korea warns the United States that U.S. "citadels" will be attacked, dwarfing the hacking attack on Sony.
updated 10:43 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
North Korea's fury over "The Interview" appears to have taken the state's oversensitivity to new extremes.
updated 8:57 PM EST, Mon December 8, 2014
A retired Silicon Valley executive and Korean War veteran was hauled off his plane at Pyongyang in 2013. Here's what happened next.
updated 5:57 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
A recent defector from North Korea tells of the harrowing escape into China via Chinese 'snakehead' gangs.
updated 7:39 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
CNN's Amara Walker speaks to a former North Korean prison guard about the abuses he witnessed and was forced to enact on prisoners.
updated 12:59 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
The chief of the Commission of Inquiry into North Korea's human rights says the world can no longer plead ignorance to the regime's offenses.
updated 7:34 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Kim Jong Il's former bodyguard tells of the beatings and starvation he endured while imprisoned in the country's most notorious prison camp.
updated 1:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
updated 4:51 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system" and citizens have "priceless political integrity," the country declared.
ADVERTISEMENT