Image: The Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2008 and 2010
DigitalGlobe via AP
This photo combination of two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe shows on the left, in the black and white image, the Yongbyon nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, on Sept. 21, 2008. The image on the right was taken Sept. 29, 2010, and shows new construction activity, the Institute for Science and International Security says.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/19/2010 9:14:14 PM ET 2010-11-20T02:14:14

New satellite images show construction under way at North Korea's main atomic complex, apparent proof that Pyongyang is making good on its pledge to build a nuclear power reactor, according to a private American security institute.

North Korea vowed in March to build a light-water reactor using its own nuclear fuel, and two American experts who recently visited the North have reportedly said that construction has begun.

Light-water reactors are ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but the power plant would give the North a reason to enrich uranium. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear bombs. While light-water reactors are considered less prone to misuse than heavy-water reactors, once the process of uranium enrichment is mastered, it is relatively easy to enrich further to weapons-grade levels.

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North Korea is pursuing an arsenal of atomic weapons, so all its nuclear projects are of intense interest to its neighbors and to the United States. It carried out nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, drawing international condemnation and U.N. sanctions.

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security on Thursday released commercial satellite images from Nov. 4 that show a rectangular structure being built, with at least two cranes visible at the complex. It estimated North Korea was constructing a 25 to 30 megawatt light-water reactor.

The institute based its estimate on information from the recent trip to Yongbyon by Siegfried Hecker, former director of the U.S. Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, and Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea.

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It said Hecker told the institute "that the new construction seen in the satellite imagery is indeed the construction of the experimental light-water reactor."

The institute said the amount of low-enriched uranium needed for a 25 to 30 megawatt reactor could vary "depending on the design of the reactor and whether it will be optimized for electricity production or weapon-grade plutonium production."

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said the construction has yet to be verified and that Seoul was monitoring developments at the site and talking with other countries. Kim said any move to build a light-water reactor would violate U.N. resolutions on North Korea aimed at reining in its nuclear programs.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley called on North Korea to live up to its commitment to denuclearize.

"North Korea is not pursuing a civilian nuclear program by itself. It is a proliferator. It has a military program," Crowley told reporters.

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Still, he said Washington is prepared to have a conversation about how to meet North Korea's legitimate energy needs if Pyongyang takes affirmative steps to denuclearize.

The new satellite imagery comes as North Korea presses for the resumption of international nuclear disarmament talks it quit last year. South Korea and the United States have said North Korea must show its sincerity before those talks can continue.

Washington promised the energy-starved North two light-water reactors under a 1994 deal meant to freeze North Korea's plutonium program. The deal, however, collapsed in 2002 when the United States accused North Korea of running a secret uranium enrichment program — a process that would give it a second way to build nuclear bombs in addition to the plutonium program.

After seven years of adamant denials, North Korea said last year that it was in the final stages of uranium enrichment.

The Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, reported Thursday that Pyongyang was building a light-water reactor as part of its plan to revive its economy ahead of 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung, father of current leader Kim Jong Il.

Assets frozen
Meanwhile, the U.S. sanctioned two North Korean companies Thursday linked to a group it accuses of drug smuggling and other "illicit" activities to support the nation's secretive leadership.

The Treasury Department's moves against Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation will freeze any assets belonging to them that fall within U.S. jurisdiction as well as bar U.S. companies from dealing with them.

Slideshow: The life of Kim Jong ll (on this page)

Their main aim is not to block North Korean assets in U.S. banks — analysts say there are unlikely to be any — but to discourage other banks from dealing with North Korea, thereby cutting off its access to foreign currency and luxury imports.

Perks and luxuries such as jewelry, fancy cars and yachts derived from North Korea's shadowy network of overseas interests are believed to be one of the main tools Pyongyang uses to ensure loyalty among top military and party leaders to Kim.

The Treasury described the two entities as "key nodes of the illicit financing network" of Office 39 of the Korean Workers' Party, which it accuses of producing and smuggling narcotics to earn foreign exchange for the government.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Kim Jong Il through the years

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  1. Happy family

    Kim Jong Il as a child with his father Kim Il Sung and first wife Kim Jong Suk. (Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Young student

    A1963 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong Il when he was a student of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. With his friends

    Kim Jong Il, second person from right, takes part of a souvenir picture with his friends in this undated photo. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Official business

    In his young days working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Training exercise

    Kim Jong Il leads the firearms training of the February 2nd National Sport Defense team members while he was working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Meeting with farmers

    Kim Jong Il talks with farmers when he was in the Central Committee, May 21, 1971. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Test drive

    Kim Jong Il takes a test drive of a play equipment combat plane in Taesong amusement park, Pyongyang in North Korea,Oct. 2, 1977. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Filmmaking

    Kim Jong Il gives advice at the shooting of "An Jung Geun Avenges Hirobumi Ito," a narrative film. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Father and son

    Kim Jong Il was anointed successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1980. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung and his son are shown attending a Korean Worker's Party convention in October of that year. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Family portrait

    Kim Jong Il, bottom left, poses memebers of his family in this 1981 photo in Pyongyang, North Korea. Sitting at right is his son, Jong-Nam, Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang stands at top left with her daughter Lee Nam-Ok, center and son Lee Il-Nam, top right. While virtually nothing is known about the leader's personal life, an attempt by his first-born son Kim Jong Nam, bottom right, to enter Japan on a false passport in May, 2001, briefly shone a light onto his family's private dealings. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Applause please

    Kim Jong Il meets with Korean People's Army personnel in this Sept., 1988, photo. North Korea is believed to be the most heavily militarized country in the world on a per capita basis. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Like father, like son

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands next to his father, Kim Il Sung, inspecting a football field in Pyongyang. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Silent famine

    Residents of Taziri, North Korea, wait for Red Cross food supplies in December 1995, not long after the death of Kim Il Sung left Kim Jong Il in control of the country. At the time, around 130,000 North Koreans were reportedly on the brink of famine and 500,000 were homeless. (Calvi Parisetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kim looking at things

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspects cucumbers harvested inside the 770th army base near Nyon Won power plant in Pyonan-Namdo. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frenemies?

    South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, right, hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of their summit meeting at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. The two leaders held historic talks for three days in June 2000. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A visitor from Russia

    Kim Jong Il walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, as he arrived in Pyongyang in July 2000 for talks on halting North Korea's missile-development program. (Itar-tass / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Toasting the U.S.

    Kim Jong Il toasts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang in October 2000. The visit was part of an coordinated effort by Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan to end the country's isolation. (Chien-min Chung / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A giant leader

    A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang August 2002. (Shingo Ito / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Welcoming Japan

    Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, shakes hands with Kim Jong Il after signing a joint statement at the end of a one-day summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002. North Korea admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s and using them to train spies. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crowds in the square

    In January 2003, more than one million people gathered on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to hear political leaders hail North Korea's dramatic decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tearful goodbyes

    Emotional South Koreans bid farewell to their North Korean families following a brief reunion in July 2004. The families were separated by the border that was imposed after fighting ended in 1953. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. X marks the spot

    A South Korean protester holds a picture of Kim Jong Il marked with a cross during a rally in Seoul on July 7, 2006. Demonstrators denounced Pyongyang's test-firing of seven missiles. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wining and dining

    South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joins Kim Jong Il at a farewell lunch in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007, after the two sides signed a pledge to seek a peace treaty to replace the 54-year-old cease-fire that ended the Korean War. With no treaty in place, the two countries technically are still at war. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Military matters

    Kim Jong Il visits a military unit in this picture released by North Korea's official news agency on Aug. 11, 2008. It was Kim's last public appearance before intelligence officials suggested he had fallen gravely ill. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. In the public eye again

    In this image taken from North Korea's KRT state television, Kim Jong II attends the first session of the Supreme People's Assembly on April 9, 2009, in Pyongyang. It was his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008. (APTN) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Paying his respects

    A gaunt-looking Kim Jong Il, sitting center in the front row, is surrounded by high-ranking officials during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of his father's death on July 8, 2009. Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea, remains known as the country's"eternal president." (KCNA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Visit from Clinton

    Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, meets with Kim Jong Il, left front, in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009. North Korea pardoned and released two detained U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, after the meeting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Calling on a cotton farm

    Kim Jong Il inspects a cotton plant farm of the Korean People's Army's 1596 unit on Nov. 29, 2009. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Meet-and-greet

    Kim Jong Il waves as people including soldiers applaud during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong Province in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in August, 2010. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. China visit

    Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27, 2010. (Ju Peng / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Likely heir

    North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, seated at center in sunglasses, and his youngest son Kim Jong Un, seated at left, pose for a photo with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency on Sept. 30, 2010. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son as successor this week, promoting him to senior political and military positions. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (2nd L) and his youngest son Kim Jong Un (3rd R from Kim Jong-il) visit the cemetery for Chinese soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War in Hoechang County, North Korea, Oct. 26, 2010, in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a massive military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 10, 2010. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died. He was 69. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pass in review

    Kim Jong Il attends a military parade to celebrate the 63rd founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang on September 9, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong il on North Korean State Television on Dec. 19, 2011. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died on a train trip, state television reported on Monday, sparking immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear program. The announcer said the 69-year old had died on Saturday of physical and mental over-work on his way to give "field guidance". (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seen inside a glass coffin as people pay their respects, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2011. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Above: Slideshow (36) The life of Kim Jong ll - Kim Jong Il through the years
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    Slideshow (42) The life of Kim Jong ll - World reacts

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