New images show 'rapid' upgrades at North Korea nuclear site, says watch group

Jenny Town, managing editor of monitoring group 38 North, says satellite images reveal North Korea's nuclear operations are continuing "despite the ongoing negotiations."

Jenny Town of watch group 38 North skeptical of denuclearization progress following Kim-Trump meeting

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island Tuesday, June 12, 2018 in Singapore. (Evan Vucci/ Associated Press )
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Infrastructure improvements at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear research site are "continuing at a rapid pace," according to a monitoring group that has released new satellite imagery.

The images come just two weeks after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his commitment to "complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" at the Singapore summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

38 North, the group that released the images, haven't confirmed the nuclear site's "operational status," but has identified continuing infrastructure upgrades.

"Continued work at the Yongbyon facility should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea's pledge to denuclearize," it wrote in a release, "The North's nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang." 

Korea expert Jenny Town is 38 North's managing editor and a research analyst at the Stimson Center, a non-profit think tank based in Washington, D.C. Here's part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan.

What exactly do these satellite images show?

What we're seeing on the imagery is that some of the infrastructure improvement projects that had started over the past couple of months before the summit … have continued and they've made progress.

Operations are continuing despite the ongoing negotiations.- Jenny Town

So, especially on improvements to the secondary cooling system for the five megawatt reactor — which is the plutonium production reactor — as well as an engineering building near the experimental light water reactor.

This is the new reactor that has not yet started, but that could also potentially produce plutonium … once it has come online, as well.

There are other infrastructure improvement projects around the main Yongbyon nuclear research facility that indicate that … operations are continuing despite the ongoing negotiations.

I think it just sort of underscores the urgency of actually getting to the details of a nuclear deal.

Satellite imagery taken June 21 of the reactor at North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. (38 North and Airbus)

You [are] absolutely sure that this work continues to go on after the summit with U.S. President Donald Trump?

Yeah.

The imagery that we saw is from after the summit and there have been notable improvements since imagery from before the summit, so this has been ongoing. We would expect it to continue until there is an actual agreement. 

Realistically, there is no specific agreement in place right now that prevents North Korea from making these actions and the only thing that has been publicly committed to is just a freezing of the nuclear missile testing, as well as some gestures on the nuclear and missile test sites as well. So not the actual fissile material production, or the nuclear weapons manufacture, or the missile manufacture at this point in time.

What concerns you most about this?

Mainly, that the program continues to improve. It continues to expand.

North Korea's capabilities will continue to expand as well, as long as they continue this program and as long as we don't have an agreement in place. So I think the biggest fear right now is that this summit had all the optics and all the publicity that the president wanted and it worked well to his base. But the mission is far from accomplished.

You know, all they really came away with on paper is setting an agenda for negotiations. Now, those negotiations actually have to take place and we need to get some detail on paper that's implementable, that will actually now stop the program and again start to roll back what we can.

Do you think the United States is being naive about this, because Donald Trump tweeted on June 13 that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea?

Well, precision has never been his strong suit.… He quickly, I think, rolled back that tweet as well.

I think this is really the test of the administration. It's hard to say how far they can actually get.

They're certainly trying something a little bit different than what has been done in past administrations. It very well could serve to go further down the road than what we have [had] in the past just by having the relationship and having the top down mandate.

But again, I think it's very naive to think that it's going to be quick or that it's going to be easy.

This segment was produced by Donya Ziaee. Q&A edited for length and clarity.