North Korea has resumed operations at the Yongbyon Radiochemistry Laboratory and has either started nuclear activities there or is preparing to begin them, according to allegations from the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), citing satellite photos of the facility made by Maxar Technologies on 30 March. The satellite shots allegedly showed smoke rising from the main building of the laboratory and the nearby power plant, which, in CSIS’s opinion, suggested that the “building is occupied and being heated”.
Yongbyon was reportedly designed to extract plutonium from the rods of spent nuclear power plants, which could then be used in nuclear weapons. However, the images themselves do not prove that these activities have been resumed at the facility, the CSIS noted.
“This, while not an indicator of a reprocessing campaign itself, indicates that the building is occupied and being heated,” the think-tank said.
The CSIS alleged that the possible restarting of plutonium extraction activities could be Pyongyang trying to put pressure either on Washington or Seoul – or both. At the same time, another set of satellite photos released in March suggested that the DPRK was working on concealing entrances to one of its underground nuclear facilities at the Yongdoktong site. The comparative photos showed the two-tunnel entrance being covered by a rectangular building.
These reports, based on Maxar Technologies’ satellite photos, come in the wake of increasing tensions between North Korea, its neighbours and the US. Pyongyang recently criticised the annual joint wargames between the American and South Korean military. The exercises were resumed in 2021 after a three-year pause caused by the pandemic and former US President Donald Trump’s efforts to normalise ties between the two states.
After the US-South Korean wargames, the DPRK conducted test launches of two of its new ballistic missiles on 25 March. The launch was strongly condemned by the country’s neighbours, South Korea and Japan. In the wake of the launch, Washington announced that it was not planning a meeting between the US president and the North Korean leader and said that its approach towards Pyongyang will be different from that used by the former administration of Donald Trump.