Mysterious N.Korea site may be building nuclear components, report says

December 18, 2020

By Josh Smith

SEOUL (Reuters) – A mysterious North Korean facility may be producing components for building nuclear bombs, a new report suggests, offering clues to understanding the site near the capital that has perplexed experts and policymakers.

The nondescript cluster of buildings called Kangson on the southwest outskirts of Pyongyang was first publicly identified in 2018 by a team of open-source analysts as the possible location of a facility for secretly enriching uranium, a fuel for nuclear bombs.

But the report by North Korea watchers at the 38 North project, reviewed by Reuters before its release on Friday, says satellite imagery points to the facility making components for centrifuges, the high-tech spinners used to enrich uranium, rather than enriching the fuel itself.

“The characteristics of the site are more consistent with a plant that could manufacture components for centrifuges,” writes former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) official Olli Heinonen in the report.

The imagery suggests the site lacks the infrastructure needed for enrichment, writes Heinonen, a distinguished fellow with the Stimson Center, the Washington think-tank that runs the project.

Pyongyang has denied having secret nuclear sites, an issue that contributed to the failure of a 2019 Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Denuclearisation talks have remained stalled in part over U.S. assertions that the North is not fully declaring the extent of its programme.

“If the issue of undeclared facilities is going to be a factor in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, as it was in Hanoi, the more we can learn about these suspected facilities, the better we can assess their role and value to North Korea’s overall nuclear weapons development,” said Jenny Town, deputy director of 38 North.

Friday’s report could advance the debate on whether the Kangson site is building machines or using them to create bomb material.

Clandestine enrichment sites would complicate efforts to estimate the number of nuclear weapons produced by the North, which has pushed ahead with enlarging its nuclear deterrent in the absence of a denuclearisation agreement.


David Albright, one of the first analysts to reveal the site’s existence, told Reuters it could be a covert enrichment facility but that the activity there is not convincing.

“We still see anomalies that do not allow us to reach a high confidence level” that enrichment is taking place at Kangson, said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

Similarly, a source familiar with U.S. intelligence reporting and analysis told Reuters they have reasons to believe Kangson is enriching uranium but that the evidence is not conclusive.

Kangson has many of features of an enrichment site, said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It had been monitored by U.S. intelligence for more than a decade before he and a team of imagery analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies identified the spot in 2018, he wrote in a report at the time.

The IAEA says Kangson shows some characteristics of an enrichment site but the organisation cannot be sure, as North Korea expelled its inspectors in 2009.

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi told Reuters the UN watchdog has “indications,” which he would not specify, that the site has a role in North Korea’s nuclear programme.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea expert at King’s College London, said that “European intelligence officials are more cautious than their U.S. counterparts” on whether Kangson is enriching uranium. The Europeans’ position, he said, “is that we simply don’t know what’s going on there for sure, so they can’t jump to the conclusion that enrichment is taking place without more solid evidence.”

Friday’s 38 North report attempts to fill in some gaps.

Satellite imagery from 2003, when the main building was being constructed, shows a concrete floor that appears to be like those built for workshops, rather than the concrete pads used in enrichment facilities to protect sensitive equipment from vibrations, the report says.

Kangson appears to lacking air conditioning units that are essential for enrichment plants, and its security perimeter is not as extensive as at other nuclear sites, Heinonen writes.

He notes that the August U.N. report says an unnamed member state had spotted no cylinders used to transport uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a compound used in the enriching process.

While commercial satellites might miss such transfers, he argues, it is unlikely that the intelligence services of foreign countries would fail to spot them.

(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, Francois Murphy in Vienna and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Editing by William Mallard)

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Missile launch or storm repairs? Flurry of activity fuels speculation of N.Korea test

By: Reuters | Seoul |

September 18, 2020 2:49:30 pm

This Sept. 17, 2020, photo, provided by Maxar Technologies shows a parade rehearsal Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies via AP)

Analysts and security officials say they are watching for signs that North Korea may use an upcoming holiday to unveil new weapons or test fire a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), after a flurry of activity was detected at a key base.

Formations of troops have been seen practicing for what is expected to be a major military parade on October 10, the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Some observers say North Korea may showcase its largest missiles for the first time since 2018.

Imagery analysts and security officials caution that so far there is no conclusive evidence of an impending launch. But after several typhoons lashed North Korea in early September, satellite photos have shown a flurry of activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard, including in a secure basin where a barge used in previous underwater missile launches is docked.

“We’re monitoring developments, as there is a possibility that a submarine-launched ballistic missile test will be conducted there using ejection equipment shortly after the repair is done,” Won In-choul, the nominee for chairman of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers this week.

Other South Korean officials have sounded more cautious notes, including incoming South Korean defence minister Gen. Suh Wook, who said on Monday that he considered an SLBM test unlikely because there is too little time to prepare ahead of the anniversary.

On Thursday, Daily NK, a Seoul-based website that reports on North Korea, cited a single unnamed source near the shipyard as saying the site “is bustling with activity to prepare for the ballistic missile launch,” with officials and researchers arriving since late August.

38 North, a US-based think tank, said in a report on Wednesday that imagery showed “heavy activity” at the shipyard, but that “no other indicators of launch preparations were observed.

“Although the activity does suggest some kind of work is being done on the missile barge, which has either been moved from the basin or repositioned under a protective awning, it would also be consistent with basic repair work after the storm, said Dave Schmerler, a senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

On September 4, the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said satellite imagery showed activity at Sinpo that was “suggestive, but not conclusive, of preparations for an upcoming test of a Pukguksong-3 submarine launched ballistic missile from the submersible test stand barge.

“Last October, North Korea said it had successfully test-fired a Pukguksong-3, which elicited no major reaction from US President Donald Trump, who has held up the absence of intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests by that country since 2017 as a diplomatic success and played down shorter-range launches.

Although North Korea could roll out a new weapons system, there are no indications that the country is looking at “lashing out” ahead of the expected military parade, the commander of US military forces in South Korea said last week.

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NKorea silence on Kim’s health raises succession speculation

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With North Korea saying nothing so far about outside media reports that leader Kim Jong Un may be unwell, there’s renewed worry about who’s next in line to run a nuclear-armed country that’s been ruled by the same family for seven decades.

Questions about Kim’s health flared after he skipped an April 15 commemoration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. It’s North Korea’s most important event, and Kim, 36, hadn’t missed it since inheriting power from his father in late 2011.

North Korea’s state media on Wednesday published some past comments by Kim but didn’t report any new activities, while rival South Korea repeated that no unusual developments had been detected in the North.

Kim has been out of the public eye for extended periods in the past, and North Korea’s secretive nature allows few outsiders to assert confidently whether he might be unwell, let alone incapacitated. Still, questions about the North’s political future are likely to grow if he fails to attend upcoming public events.

Kim is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea, and a strong personality cult has been built around him, his father and grandfather. The family’s mythical “Paektu” bloodline, named after the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, is said to give only direct family members the right to rule the nation.

That makes Kim’s younger sister, senior ruling party official Kim Yo Jong, the most likely candidate to step in if her brother is gravely ill, incapacitated or dies. But some experts say a collective leadership, which could end the family’s dynastic rule, could also be possible.

“Among the North’s power elite, Kim Yo Jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90%,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. “North Korea is like a dynasty, and we can view the Paektu descent as royal blood so it’s unlikely for anyone to raise any issue over Kim Yo Jong taking power.”

Believed to be in her early 30s, Kim Yo Jong is in charge of North Korea’s propaganda affairs, and earlier this month was made an alternate member of the powerful Politburo.

She has frequently appeared with her brother at public activities, standing out among elderly male officials. She accompanied Kim Jong Un on his high-stakes summits with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders in recent years. Her proximity to him during those summits led many outsiders to believe she’s essentially North Korea’s No. 2 official.

“I think the basic assumption would be that maybe it would be someone in the family” to replace Kim Jong Un, U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters Tuesday. “But again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know, you know, what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

The fact that North Korea is an extremely patriarchal society has led some to wonder if Kim Yo Jong would only serve as a temporary figurehead and then be replaced by a collective leadership similar to ones established after the deaths of other Communist dictators.

“North Korean politics and the three hereditary power transfers have been male-centered. I wonder whether she can really overcome bloody socialist power struggles and exercise her power,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea.

A collective leadership would likely be headed by Choe Ryong Hae, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state who officially ranks No. 2 in the country’s current power hierarchy, Nam said.

But Choe is still not a Kim family member, and that could raise questions about his legitimacy and put North Korea into deeper political chaos, according to other observers.

Other Kim family members who might take over include Kim Pyong Il, the 65-year-old half-brother of Kim Jong Il who reportedly returned home in November after decades in Europe as a diplomat.

Kim Pyong Il’s age “could make him a reasonable front man for collective leadership by the State Affairs Commission and regent for the preferred next generation successor,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “However, elite power dynamics and danger of instability might make this an unlikely option.”

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