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World

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

  • 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.
Published December 18, 2020

SEOUL: 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.

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.

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