Several signs are pointing to North Korea still working on its nuclear program

Key Points
  • Recent satellite imagery from 38North shows ongoing construction work at a major North Korean nuclear research center as well as no signs of dismantlement at a separate site used to to test rocket engines.
  • U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that Pyongyang may have recently increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites.
  • Such reports undermine ruler Kim Jong Un's June 12 pledge of complete denuclearization.
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un inspects Unit 1524 of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) June 30, 2018. 
KCNA | Reuters

Nearly three weeks since North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un committed to complete denuclearization, multiple signs have emerged of expanding activity at his country's nuclear facilities.

If the reports are true, that would mean Kim has yet to take concrete steps to fulfill the pledge he made at a historic summit with U.S. President Donald Trump on June 12.

On Saturday, U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News that Pyongyang may have recently increased production of fuel for nuclear weapons at multiple secret sites. It's possible that Kim's government may be attempting to hide those pursuits as it seeks more concessions from the Trump administration, the officials continued.

Meanwhile last week, commercial satellite imagery from research group 38North — part of Washington-based think tank The Stimson Center — showed infrastructure upgrades at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, which is located north of Pyongyang. The improvements include completed modifications to a plutonium production reactor’s cooling system, newly erected small buildings and continued construction on various support facilities, 38North said.

In a separate analysis released on June 21, 38North also published satellite imagery of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station that showed no signs of dismantlement. The station, used to test large rocket engines that are part of intercontinental ballistic missiles, is speculated to be the same engine site that Trump said North Korea was destroying on June 12.

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Such reports directly counter the White House's confidence in Pyongyang fully cooperating with verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.

At a June 21 cabinet meeting, the president said of the document that he co-signed with Kim on June 12: "If people actually read it to the public, you’d see: Number one statement, we will immediately begin total denuclearization of North Korea."

And over the weekend, National Security Advisor John Bolton told CBS that Washington devised a program to dismantle North Korea’s chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic missile programs in a year. But multiple experts have warned that the process, which entails disassembling deployed and stockpiled weapons, closing nuclear reactors and removing all enriched uranium, could span several years.

Completing the initial steps of denuclearization, i.e. dismantling weapons and removing their fissile material, could be done "in a matter of a few weeks" but only "if the DPRK is as cooperative as the president believes," Robert Kelley, a nuclear engineer and associate research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said in a recent note.