28.05.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Secret Nuclear Sites of DPRK? Or is Everything Visible from Above?


Since 2018, North Korea has continued to adhere to its moratorium on nuclear, and medium- and long-range missile tests. This has created an impression that DPRK’s missile and nuclear weapons program has been put on hold. Still, analysts have been asking whether this is actually the case and the answer tends to depend on their political bias.  Naturally, those who have come to perceive Pyongyang as an Evil Empire believe that North Korea has not stopped working on such projects and is continuing to develop weapons of mass destruction. Within US expert circles, aside from holding such opinions, analysts linked with the Democratic party typically seek ways to show how politically incompetent Donald Trump is. In fact, any of their statements about successes made on the North Korean front actually imply that Donald Trump is being deceived but does not realize this.

Such ideological blinders further restrict the limited capabilities of these “Pyongyang experts”. Analyzing satellite images is essentially the only means they use to learn what is happening in the DPRK. But it is impossible to see everything from up above. Therefore, analysts end up basing their assumptions on a politicized interpretation of information, i.e. if a building can theoretically house a missile, it must be meant for that very purpose.

This, in turn, generates sensational stories about yet another secret site linked to the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program being located. Such reports are often published by Beyond Parallel, an analytic vehicle funded by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) or 38 North, currently a project of the Henry L. Stimson Center (formerly a program of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies).

On August 28, 2019, Beyond Parallel wrote that their latest satellite images provided “circumstantial evidence of the construction of a new ballistic missile submarine and preliminary evidence of possible preparations for a test” in the DPRK. Photographs of Sinpo South Shipyard showed “support vessels and a crane” suggesting “possible preparations, based on past practice, to tow the missile test stand barge out to sea for an SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) test flight”. And although the authors of the article stated that there was “no conclusive evidence” that the preparation were nearing completion, media outlets reported that as an evidential fact.

On September 5, 2019, experts of the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on North Korea submitted a report stating that the Uranium enrichment facility and the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) continued their operations at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.

On September 18, 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said that a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon was shut down for a sufficient period of time to be “de-fueled and subsequently re-fueled” in its report. The document also stated that there had been “signs of use at the centrifuge enrichment facility” there although “no indications of reprocessing activities” had been detected at the radiochemical lab in the plant.

In December 2019, the 38 North website reported that Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) had “observed activity at the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR)” in Yongbyon indicating that it might be operational (). According to the article, the “construction of the ELWR began in late 2010”, and although it appeared to be externally complete in early 2013, the North Korean government “has not spoken publicly about the reactor or its status” since November 2011.

Commercial satellite images made early in 2019 showed “a narrow but steady liquid effluent likely trailing from a pipeline stemming from the Turbine-Generator Building of the ELWR”.  The report said that since 2017, photographs have shown “frequent movement of vehicles, cranes and equipment around the reactor’s entrance, the emplacement of a transmission tower and electrical transmission lines in 2017”. And in early 2018, the construction of a dam and spillway were observed. The authors of the article concluded that such activity indicated that the reactor was being prepared “for start-up operation”, and this “could have significant implications for North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and would complicate any denuclearization process”. According to the report, “the stated purpose for the ELWR is electricity generation”, but “the reactor could be operated to produce weapons-grade plutonium or tritium for boosted fission or hydrogen bombs”.

On January 30, 2019, South Korea’s leading conservative newspaper the Chosun Ilbo wrote that the DPRK had supposedly “built a large tunnel in Ryanggang Province near the border with China” that appeared “to be an underground missile base”. The conclusion was based on observations of the facility and imagery showing that the tunnel had only one entrance with “two cylindrical objects measuring around 10 m in length” near it, which appeared “to be missile-launching tubes”.

In March 2020, 38 North wrote about “a previously publicly unidentified underground facility (UGF) beneath a hill in Bungang” near the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center.  The article provided a lot of details, based on satellite imagery, about its construction that had started in 2004. And, most importantly, the author made the following conclusion: “Underground structures in residential areas are not unusual and may be used for storage, civil defense or other innocuous purposes. While there is no evidence that it is related to the North Korean nuclear program, the site’s proximity may raise suspicions. Moreover, there is reason to believe there may be other underground sites in the area that may also provoke the same concerns. Therefore, any future denuclearization agreements covering the Yongbyon nuclear facility may need to take this site and any others discovered nearby into consideration when formulating verification provisions.” The report also mentioned that “no electrical lines feeding into” the UGF were observed, and “no external ventilation systems” were visible.

On March 27, 2020, the 38 North website issued a warning that “a new North Korean version of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), test-fired” in March, could be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

On April 8, citing 38 North, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that the DPRK had “recently conducted a dummy missile ejection test at its Sinpo shipyard”. According to the article, satellite imagery from April 5 showed that “the service tower on the ejection test pad pulled back from its static position”. In addition, the photographs also depicted a “glimpse of the bow of the SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine”, however, “it was mostly obscured by the environmental awning”.

Another report published by Beyond Parallel on May 5, 2020 caused quite a stir. It said that a new facility was nearing completion in the village of Sil-li (not far from Pyongyang International Airport), and that it was “almost certainly related to North Korea’s expanding ballistic missile program”. According to the article, it “could be complete and ready for operations sometime during late-2020 or early-2021”.

The author of the story, Joseph Bermudez, based his conclusions on the following information:

  • “A high-bay building within the facility is large enough to accommodate an elevated Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile and, therefore, the entirety of North Korea’s known ballistic missile variants.” The building bay doors up to 8 m in height also indicate this.
  • The facility has been constructed next to a UGL “whose likely size is also large enough to easily accommodate all known North Korean ballistic missiles and their associated launchers and support vehicles”.
  • An “unusually large covered rail terminal” and a “new rail spur line” are probably meant “to support ballistic missile operations” at the facility. All the structures there are connected by “a 9- to 10-meter-wide surfaced road network with wide radius turns suitable for the movement of large trucks and ballistic missile launchers”.
  • The facility is “relatively close to ballistic missile component manufacturing plants in the Pyongyang area” (for example, Tae-sung Machine Factory, Mangyongdae Light Electric Factory) and can, therefore, be used for “the assembly of ballistic missiles from components delivered by rail”
  • “There are at least 17 air defense artillery bases and numerous military and paramilitary barracks within a 5-kilometer radius of the facility”.

Citing Joseph Bermudez’s article, ROK’s Yonhap News Agency elaborated that the Sil-li Ballistic Missile Support Facility, nearing completion, could be used to test-fire intercontinental ballistic missiles. And on May 9, it was reported that “multiple intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)” were “newly manufactured in Sain-ri, Pyongsong in North Korea”.

However, a Principal Researcher at Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute (KAERI) and the former Director General of Korea Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control (KINAC), Hwang Yong-soo was very critical of Joseph Bermudez’s conclusions comparing them to baseless rumors about the North Korean leader’s health.

Hwang Yong-soo pointed out that Bermudez leapt from “hypothesis to inferred conclusion” in his Beyond Parallel report, which was based solely on “interpreted open source satellite imagery”. He was also skeptical that “North Korea’s leaders would construct their most critical missile facility adjacent to Sunan Airport” (DPRK’s national airport). In addition, “transport of large missiles and components to and from Sil-li would be apparent via national technical means to the United States and its allies”.  Hwang Yong-soo also suggested that alternative explanations for large buildings being constructed “next to an airport seem entirely logical as the purpose attributed to these buildings by CSIS”.

It is no secret that North Korea often builds underground facilities to prepare for a possible military conflict during which Pyongyang’s enemies would dominate in the skies. Hence, many of DPRK’s manufacturing and strategic complexes are located underground, but this does not mean that all of them are linked to the missile and nuclear weapons program.

Still, North Korea has surprised the rest of the world on occasion, thus western analysts tend to err on the side of caution when if comes to the DPRK. After all, underestimating one’s enemies is far more dangerous than overestimating them.  Nonetheless, it is worth treating reasonable concerns in a different manner to attempts to produce cheaply sensational reports based on biased interpretations or data that is low on quality and quantity.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.