North Korean nuclear weapons program ‘primed for expansion,’ report says

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SEOUL, March 4 (UPI) — Activity at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility, where the secretive state makes fissile material for nuclear weapons, is in “full swing” and looks to be growing, a report said Friday.

Commercial satellite imagery shows the ongoing production of plutonium and uranium at the Yongbyon site as well as construction of new buildings and personnel housing, according to the report by U.S.-based monitoring website 38 North.

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The activities “suggest that the complex is primed for expansion,” the report said.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or launched an intercontinental ballistic missile since 2017, but leader Kim Jong Un has raised concerns after suggesting in January that he may be ready to lift a self-imposed moratorium.

Pyongayang restarted Yongbyon’s 5MWe nuclear reactor last July after a hiatus of more than 2 1/2 years, according to the U.N.’s International Atomic Emergency Agency. Work also appears to be continuing at a second reactor which could significantly upgrade North Korea’s ability to produce material for its nuclear weapons.

The facility’s experimental light water reactor, begun in 2010, “might be approaching its inauguration,” the report said.

“If the ELWR becomes operational, as it appears to be nearing completion, North Korea’s plutonium production capacity could increase substantially,” the report concluded.

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It added, however, that additional modifications to other facilities would still be necessary to take advantage of the increased production.

North Korea has ramped up the pace of its missile program in 2022, with a record seven launches in January — including long-range cruise missiles, an alleged hypersonic weapon and an intermediate-range ballistic missile that was its biggest weapons test in more than four years.

After a hiatus that observers believed was tied to Beijing’s Winter Olympics in February, North Korea resumed activity on Sunday with a medium-range ballistic missile launch that it claimed was a spy satellite test.