North Korea Expanding Yongbyon Nuclear Facility: More Warheads or More Clean Energy?

Satellite images published by U.S.-based earth imaging company Maxar have indicated that North Korea is expanding its Yongbyon nuclear complex, which could increase its capacity for producing weapons-grade uranium. 

The result may be an increase in the rate of production of new nuclear warheads by up to 25 percent, according to Western assessments. The expansion will provide approximately 1,000 square meters of new space, making room for 1000 or more new centrifuges. This development comes as North Korea works to diversify its arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles including its first strategic cruise missiles. 

The expansion may be an attempt to place further pressure on the United States, which previously rejected offers in February 2019 to monitor and cease work at Yongbyon in exchange for providing North Korea with relief from Western sanctions. Korean pressure on Washington is expected to be gradually increased until the Biden administration shows a willingness to enter talks with the final goal of providing some form of relief from Western drafted economic sanctions passed through the United Nations. 

With UN sanctions having seriously restricted North Korea's ability to import oil, nuclear power has been highlighted as a means of providing electricity to compensate for shortages. 

The possibility of modernizing Korean nuclear infrastructure, possibly with Iranian assistance as the two have maintained close cooperation in the field, could significantly increase the capacity for both power generation and weapons production. Expansion of the country’s nuclear capabilities was ordered at the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021, with a particular focus on “develop[ing] nuclear technology to a higher level and make nuclear weapons smaller and lighter for more tactical uses” while also allowing the country to “continuously push ahead with the production of super-sized nuclear warheads.” This was thought to be a reference to thermonuclear hydrogen bombs. 

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