North Korea Nuclear Complex Expanding Uranium Enrichment Plant, Satellite Photos Suggest

Recent satellite images indicate that North Korea is expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, meaning the nation could be planning to boost its production of nuclear materials for weapons production.

The expansion "probably indicates" that North Korea plans to increase the production of weapons-grade uranium at the site by as much as 25 percent, according to a report by the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, written by Jeffrey Lewis, Joshua Pollack and David Schmerler.

The photos show construction in an area adjoining the existing uranium enrichment plant. One image taken September 1 shows that trees had been cleared and the ground had been prepared for construction, according to the report.

A second image taken September 14 shows that North Korea constructed a wall to enclose the area, began work on a foundation, and removed panels from the side of the enrichment building to provide access to the newly enclosed area.

According to the report, the new area is about 1,000 square meters, which could be large enough to house 1,000 new centrifuges. This would increase the plant's capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent—though the capacity could be larger depending on the type of centrifuges North Korea is using.

Six cooling units used to control the temperature inside the existing uranium enrichment plant also appear to have been moved. "An overhaul of the cooling system would be consistent with an increase in the floorspace and number of centrifuges, which would require additional cooling," the report said.

Nuclear weapons can be built using highly enriched uranium or plutonium. North Korea has facilities to produce both at Yongbyon, which the nation calls "the heart" of its nuclear program, according to the Associated Press.

During a meeting with former President Donald Trump in 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un offered to dismantle the complex if he was given major sanctions relief, but the proposal was rejected by the U.S.

North Korea has launched ballistic and cruise missiles toward the sea in recent days.

Last weekend, North Korea conducted a test of long-range cruise missiles that flew about 930 miles above the land and water. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said, "the efficiency and practicality of the weapon system operation was confirmed to be excellent."

On Wednesday, North Korea launched two unidentified ballistic missiles into the East Sea. The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said, "this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK's illicit weapons program."

The U.S. State Department said in a statement to Newsweek that it does not comment on intelligence matters.

"The DPRK's unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as the regime's willingness to proliferate these technologies, are serious threats to international peace and security and undermine the global nonproliferation regime," the statement said. "To reduce tension and explore the potential for diplomacy, the Biden Administration reached out to North Korea multiple times to restart dialogue."

North Korea Missile
Recent satellite images suggest that North Korea is expanding a uranium enrichment plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. Here, a TV in Seoul on September 15 shows a North Korean missile launch. Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images