Surprise! New imagery suggests that North Korea has even more nuclear fuel than commonly thought. Reuters:
Thermal images of North Korea’s main nuclear site show Pyongyang may have reprocessed more plutonium than previously thought that can be used to enlarge its nuclear weapons stockpile, a U.S. think tank said on Friday.
The analysis by 38 North, a Washington-based North Korean monitoring project, was based on satellite images of the radiochemical laboratory at the Yongbyon nuclear plant from September until the end of June, amid rising international concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The think tank said images of the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon could also indicate operation of centrifuges that could be used to increase North Korea’s stock of enriched uranium, its other source of bomb fuel.
In addition to the extra supplies of uranium and plutonium, 38 North observed an increase in thermal activity over an Experimental Light Water Reactor, which could also be cause for concern.
Estimates vary on how many nuclear bombs Pyongyang actually has—anywhere from 6 to 30, depending on whom you ask, and possibly more given the latest revelations. Discerning the exact status of North Korea’s nuclear program is always an inexact science, but the data here from the enrichment sites (which are much harder to conceal than the delivery systems) suggests that the program has, if anything, been underestimated.
Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s options to deal with the threat remain as poor and limited as ever. Rumor has it that Trump may introduce more secondary sanctions next week, in an attempt to squeeze Chinese businesses that have aided Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Perhaps that will help slow its further growth—but barring a miracle, it is hard to see how North Korea’s nuclear genie can ever be put back into the bottle.