Despite the summit between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kom Jong Un on June 12 at which Kim promised denuclearization, it appears that North Korea is swiftly upgrading its nuclear research center.
Analyzing satellite imagery taken by Airbus Defence & Space, 38 North, a North Korea-focused website published by the Stimson Center in Washington, found North Korea appears to have modified the cooling system of its plutonium-production reactor and erected a new building near the cooling tower. The report also stated, “Construction continues on support facilities throughout other operational areas of Yongbyon, especially at the Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR).”
As The Wall Street Journal noted, the pictures from June 21 “showed no immediate effort to begin denuclearization at North Korea’s key nuclear research site.”
After meeting with Kim, President Trump said Kim would start dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program when he returned to North Korea. Trump stated, “In fact, when he lands—which is going to be shortly—I think that he will start that process right away.” At a June 21 cabinet meeting, Trump said the U.S. and North Korea had agreed to “immediately begin total denuclearization of North Korea.”
38 North has no axe to grind vis-à-vis North Korea; as WSJ writes, “38 North, in commentary pieces, has generally supported engagement and dialogue with North Korea, though its satellite imagery analyses have captured the regime’s preparations for nuclear and missile tests.”
Before Trump and Kim met, North Korea invited journalists to watch it destroy its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. No experts were invited; some said the site was likely already unusable. In 2008, a similar invitation was offered for journalists to see a cooling tower destroyed, but only months later, North Korea threatened to reverse its move toward denuclearization.