North Korea still operating, improving major nuclear fuel plant, experts say

Joseph Bermudez Jr. and Victor Cha say images from March show activity at the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant, believed to produce yellowcake uranium.

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By Ken Dilanian and Andrea Mitchell

WASHINGTON — A key source of material for North Korea's nuclear program remains operational and continues to be updated, according to a coming report based on recent satellite photos that underscores the persistence of a top threat to U.S. national security.

In a preview of their analysis obtained exclusively by NBC News, North Korea experts Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Victor Cha say imagery taken in March depicts ongoing activity at the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant, which is believed to produce so-called yellowcake uranium, a precursor of nuclear fuel.

Click here to read the preview

Among the indicators of continued yellowcake production, researchers found, are full tanks of chemical waste and the continued accumulation of solid and liquid waste in a pond at the facility. The full report, to be released next month, will show new construction at the compound, the researchers said.

Cha, who was President George W. Bush's top Korea adviser, said the continuing work at the facility demonstrates the North Koreans' "unrelenting effort to grow their capabilities despite three summits and the utter failure of the one diplomatic negotiation that Trump has put any effort into."

Cha, an NBC News contributor, was considered by the Trump administration to be the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, but the idea was dropped after he raised concerns about a possible limited military strike on North Korea.

On Sunday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over a military meeting to discuss bolstering the country's nuclear arsenal.

An overview of the northern section of the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant as of March 22, 2020.Maxar Technologies

The Korean Central News Agency said officials discussed "new policies for further increasing the nuclear war deterrence of the country and putting the strategic armed forces on a high alert operation," as well as increasing the capabilities for deterring "the threatening foreign forces."

Kim emerged in public recently after a long absence from view that fueled speculation about his health.

President Donald Trump said he sent Kim a letter in March offering to cooperate on the coronavirus. It was part of a charm offensive by Trump that has included a pair of summits between the two leaders, but there has been no sign that North Korea will do what the U.S. wants and give up its nuclear weapons.

U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Kim is unlikely ever to part with his nuclear weapons voluntarily and that despite a halt to nuclear testing, the regime has continued to work to improve a nuclear arsenal that officials say threatens the American mainland.

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The work at the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant is one example of North Korea's commitment to its program, experts say. Satellite imagery in 2015 showed that the facility had been expanded. The new report will show further expansion, the researchers say.

"While it is unclear if the subject came up during the abortive February 27–28, 2019 Hanoi Summit, the dismantlement of the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant should be an essential component to any meaningful future 'complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement' nuclear agreement between the United States and North Korea," Bermudez and Cha wrote in their analysis for Beyond Parallel, a newsletter put out by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

An overview of the southern section of the Pyongsan Uranium Concentrate Plant as of March 22, 2020.Maxar Technologies

"The plant's importance to the North Korean leadership and its critical position within the nuclear research and weapons development programs is attested to by the fact that scarce human and financial resources have been consistently allocated to actively maintain, refurbish or modernize the plant since 2003, and probably since its construction."

Yellowcake uranium can be enriched for use in nuclear weapons, and it can also be used to produce fuel for North Korea's Experimental Light Water Reactor under construction at its Yongbon nuclear scientific research facility, experts have said. The reactor can produce weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear weapons.