Is North Korea Producing Plutonium at Yongbyon?

The previous post was long, too long perhaps, which left me with little space for discussion of North Korea’s fissile material production. Instead of including that aspect to this week’s news in the previous post, I thought I’d write up on this briefly here instead.

The Wall Street Journal this weekend has an article saying that North Korea has upped the tempo of nuclear weapons production since the first Singapore summit between President Trump and Chairman Kim. Initially it wasn’t clear whether that was a reference to final assembly of nuclear warhead and missiles, or fissile material production alone or a combination of both. That’s because the article as originally written claimed that Defense Intelligence Agency analysts had assessed that Pyongyang could have produced 12 nuclear weapons since the 2018 Singapore summit, without clarifying further what was meant by this. That claim has since been retracted. The article now confines itself like so;

“Shipping containers, trucks and crowds of people moving materials and instruments at North Korea’s key weapons facilities like the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center and the Sanum-dong missile production site, suggest North Korea has continued producing fissile material and intercontinental ballistic missiles.”

We now have a combination of missiles and fissile materials but no hard and fast measure of completed warheads mated onto missiles. That’s not really news, it must be said.

Kim Jong-un did call for the “mass production” of strategic assets in his 2018 new year address, so it’s not like Pyongyang is doing something it said it wouldn’t do. The source of the WSJ article, when you extract away the reference to the DIA, are analysts who have long maintained this position. We see here a graphic example of how the mainstream corporate media rely on nonproliferation analysts when reporting on North Korea and how nonproliferation analysts rely on the corporate media to support their discipline. The revealing of this symbiotic relationship, it seems to me, is the most newsworthy aspect of the article.

Some analysts have argued that when the article is referring to fissile materials for nuclear weapons it could not be in reference to plutonium. It can only be in reference to weapons grade uranium. A distinction between the two is certainly not made in the article. The Singapore summit was in June 2018. The main evidence supporting the no plutonium production position comes from an August 2018 IAEA report on North Korea. It’s commonly regarded that the Yongbyon nuclear reactor has not been in operation since December 2018, although this is not a consensus position. Plutonium is produced by extracting fuel rods from a nuclear reactor, after shutdown, which is then reprocessed in a reprocessing plant. The spent fuel needs to be cooled prior to reprocessing, a process that usually takes some 160 days.

According to the IAEA report North Korea had at times briefly shut down the reactor after it resumed operations (2015) up to the reporting period (August 2018) but not of sufficient duration to discharge an entire reactor core of spent fuel. Moreover, although steam was observed to be coming from the operating plant serving the Radiochemical Laboratory at Yongbyon (where North Korea reprocesses plutonium) in 2018 (up to August recall) that too was not consistent with a reprocessing campaign according to the IAEA. That suggests no plutonium production.

However, the UN Panel of Experts on the implementation of UN sanctions and North Korea’s adherence to UN resolutions, wrote in its February 2019 Report that a “member state” had informed it that the 5MWe reactor at Yongbyon was shut down from September to October 2018. It is stated that North Korea may have discharged spent fuel from the reactor in that period. According to the Panel of Experts Report the member state also reported that there was evidence of heat being generated from within the Radiochemical Laboratory in November 2018. Given it usually takes 160 days for the spent fuel to cool sufficiently for it to be reprocessed, should the Radiochemical Lab have been reprocessing plutonium it was not reprocessing plutonium from the spent fuel (possibly) discharged in September-October 2018. However, it could be reprocessed from April-May 2019 onward. That’s suggestive of normal operations.

Satellite imagery analysis from 38North has throughout 2019 concluded that the main facilities associated with plutonium are well maintained but not operating. As stated, this analysis is not a consensus position as can be seen from the WSJ article. Is the reported activity at Yongbyon consistent with plutonium production?

It cannot be ruled out.

We have here something well worth watching closely.

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