29.09.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

DPRK Nuclear Activity in 2021


In the fall of 2021, news broke out that, in addition to developing a missile program, the DPRK restarted the Yongbyon reactor, its main nuclear facility, which was not operational from December 2018 to early July 2021.

During the February 2019 summit in Hanoi, Kim Jong-un told Donald Trump that he was willing to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions that affect the civilian economy, However, the US did not accept the proposal, insisting that North Korea needs to shut down all of the nuclear facilities.

Throughout 2021, experts have consistently noted that while some details of the satellite imagery could be interpreted as the beginning of nuclear fuel reprocessing for weapons-grade plutonium, no activity was detected at the reactor itself. The source of information has always been satellite imagery

On June 7, in his quarterly report on the IAEA’s activities, IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said the agency had detected signs of work in North Korea to separate plutonium from spent reactor fuel. Steam continues to rise over a facility near Pyongyang that services a nuclear waste reprocessing laboratory.

In late August, US website 38 North published satellite images showing the process of discharging water from the reactor cooling system through a new diversion channel, a major confirmation of the reactor’s operation. The IAEA report then revealed that Pyongyang had apparently reactivated its 5MW nuclear reactor. IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi described the signs of reactivation of a nuclear reactor to extract highly enriched uranium (HEU) from spent fuel. He expressed great concern about the possibility that North Korea possesses additional HEU and weapons-grade plutonium, as this could produce more nuclear weapons than before.

Speaking at a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors on September 13, Rafael Grossi said North Korea’s activities remain a “grave concern.“ Calling on Pyongyang to comply with its international obligations, Rafael Grossi said the continuation of the nuclear program was a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions. The IAEA Director-General urged Pyongyang to cooperate with the agency. Later, at the opening of the 65th IAEA General Conference in Vienna on September 20, Rafael Grossi said the continuation of the nuclear program was a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

On September 16, US media citing the Middlebury Institute for International Studies, which analyzes satellite images of North Korea’s nuclear research center, reported that North Korea had upgraded uranium enrichment facilities at its nuclear center in Yongbyon. Photographs taken on September 14 show changes in some areas of the center: the nuclear center is beginning to expand to about 1,000 square meters following the dismantling of six cooling units. This was done to install more centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium.

Jeffrey Lewis, Professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies believes that up to a thousand centrifuges could be placed on the territory of the facility under construction. He believes that commissioning the facility will allow Pyongyang to expand its military nuclear material production capabilities by a quarter.

In addition, according to the analysis of recent satellite images, the DPRK is constructing a new building at the nuclear complex at an accelerated pace.  It is not possible to determine the exact purpose of the facility, but it is assumed that it will play a supporting role in the operation and maintenance of the light water reactor.

A separate analysis by 38 North, a US website tracking North Korea, demonstrated that five refrigeration units at the uranium enrichment plant appeared to have been removed between late August and early September. While the purpose of removing the units is unclear, it may indicate that there may be some effort to improve the cooling system.

According to CNN, the White House, State Department, and intelligence agencies declined to comment on the media reports. Still, in the ROK, the news sparked a heated political debate after Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Choi Jong-Kun stated during a meeting at the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee at the National Assembly of South Korea, that he did not believe North Korea’s proposed launch of a nuclear reactor would violate the 2018 Panmunjom declaration.

The Blue House also said it agreed with Choi’s remarks, prompting criticism that the government was pandering to North Korea for the sake of President Moon Jae-in’s peace initiative.

As the conservative Joongang Ilbo notes, restoring reactor operation is directly linked to the production of nuclear weapons materials, which contradicts the course towards denuclearization. While the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration made it clear that South Korea and North Korea strive to create a “Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons through complete denuclearization.“ In the Pyongyang Declaration, which was signed five months later, the North Korea expressed its willingness to pursue additional measures, such as dismantling its nuclear facility in Yongbyon.

But how up and running is the reactor? Several respondents to the author told him that this move by the DPRK would have been formally announced. According to Hwang Yong-soo, the principal researcher at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, numerous attempts have been made to verify the status of uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon plant. However, there is uncertainty in the full understanding of the actual enrichment, operation, and maintenance capabilities of the facilities. Indirect evidence includes plumes of steam and underground facilities at these sites, and hard evidence is required to understand these fundamental functions. In practice, North Korea may have technical difficulties with spent fuel.

Meanwhile, as noted in the report “North Korea’s Strategic Capabilities and Security on the Korean Peninsula: Looking ahead,“ published by the UK International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Russian Center for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS), if the North Korea-US summit in Hanoi in late February 2019 had succeeded, and North Korea had dismantled the reactor, it would have eliminated 80% of the North’s capacity for producing nuclear weapons. Siegfried Hecker, known for his 2010 visit to the Yongbyon complex, stressed that the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear complex should not be underrated.

Sure, there are other nuclear sites besides Pyongyang, such as Kangsong on the outskirts of Pyongyang, the immediate cause of the breakdown of negotiations between North Korea and the US during their Hanoi summit in February 2019.  But there are questions. Although on December 18, 2020, Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), noted that the Kangson facility appears to be linked to the North’s uranium program, but not in a way that had been suspected. “Its characteristics are consistent with a large-scale machine tool workshop suitable for the production and testing of centrifuge components.“ However, unlike buildings at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, Kangson does not have a security defense-in-depth. In addition, the facility “appears to be missing air conditioning units, which are essential to maintaining an appropriate operating environment for centrifuges at production-scale facilities.“ According to Grossi, Kangson could produce parts and equipment, such as centrifuges for uranium enrichment. The possibility that the Kangson facility is reprocessing nuclear fuel from spent rods has not been ruled out, but there is no credible evidence of this.

THe author would like to conclude the text with an assessment of the DPRK’s nuclear capabilities so far. The IISS and CENESS report estimate that as of September 2020, North Korea has enough fissile material to produce 13 to 47 nuclear warheads, 18-30 kg of plutonium (enough to make 4-7 nuclear charges, assuming 4 kilograms of plutonium per charge), and 180-810 kg of highly enriched uranium (enough to make 9-40 nuclear charges, assuming 20 kilograms of uranium per charge). It could produce up to 6 kilograms of plutonium and 100 kilograms of highly enriched uranium each year, or enough to make about five nuclear warheads.

According to the South Korean Ministry of Defense’s 2020 White Paper, Pyongyang possesses 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make up to 10 nuclear warheads, and its nuclear warhead miniaturization technology has reached “significant“ levels.

Hwang Yong-soo notes that North Korea currently possesses 30-60 nuclear warheads, about ten more than last year, although there is no evidence that the latest ICBMs on display at parades are ready for mass production.

Famous and authoritative expert on North Korea’s nuclear program Siegfried Hecker has his own opinion: based on the amount of plutonium and highly enriched uranium stockpiles assumed by North Korea, the country may have from 20 to 60 nuclear charges. Most likely, the number is 45. The scientist believes that North Korea has produced 25-48 kg of plutonium so far and possessed about 600-950 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in late 2020.

A joint analysis by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the US nonprofit RAND, titled “How to Respond to North Korea’s Nuclear Threat,“ published on April 13, 2021, found that North Korea has approximately 116 nuclear weapons. By 2027 it could have 151 to 242 nuclear weapons and dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles. The report estimates the amount of fissile material, including plutonium and highly enriched uranium, that Pyongyang is believed to have produced. The report states that the ROK and the United States should maximize their efforts against the North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons.

However, such anxiety-producing assessments were aimed at justifying the report’s concluding call for Seoul and Washington to consider allocating US strategic nuclear weapons to target the North Korea, the deploying US medium-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in or near South Korea and placement of tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula,

while the North is second to everyone else in total spending on the nuclear program. In 2020, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) presented data on the world’s spending on nuclear weapons. The US led the way with $37.4 billion, China $10.1 billion, Russia $8 billion, the UK $6.2 billion, and France $5.7 billion. Next are India, Israel, and Pakistan. DPRK’s figure is only $667 million.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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