Joshua PollackNorth Korea’s Mixed Messages

To place a new nuclear facility at Yongbyon is to prepare it for exhibition. Nothing else makes that point as well as the easily overlooked third new building mentioned in Sig Hecker’s latest trip report, after the light-water reactor (LWR) and the gas centrifuge enrichment plant (GCEP): “the new three-story Guest House.” Decoded, the message reads: Come visit Yongbyon, where sanctions aren’t working.

The exact placement of the GCEP and the LWR-in-progress contain a message of their own. First, as a recent DigitalGlobe image shows, the LWR construction site occupies the area of the disabled 5 MW(e) Magnox reactor’s former cooling tower.  (See the ISIS image brief.) Second, as Jeffrey points out, the GCEP stands on the site of the Magnox reactor’s fuel-fabrication building. As I’ve written in a contribution to the current issue of Uranium Intelligence Weekly, these changes almost certainly would not prevent restoration of the reactor to operational status, but they do convey that making plutonium at Yongbyon no longer rates as a high priority.

In fact, these look like the very sort of additional and unilateral disablement steps that I had deemed so unlikely earlier. (Whoops.) It’s the sort of action that one might expect North Korea to take in order to signal confidence that it already has all the plutonium it needs.

Naturally, skeptics will question the North Koreans’ statements, described in Hecker’s report, that the new facilities are meant to produce electricity only, and not new weapons made with highly enriched uranium (HEU). Those inclined to brooding may reflect on reports that a new tunnel is being dug at the nuclear test site near Punggye-ri, and wonder if this has any connection to threats from July to “bolster [North Korea’s] nuclear deterrent in a more diversified manner.” Still, I’m not betting on the testing of an HEU device — at least, not quite so soon after the responsible parties have sworn up and down that it’s all just for making electricity.

What Sort of Centrifuges? How Powerful?

For the time being, my UIW piece remains behind the paywall. If you have access, you might find it interesting for its discussion of the potential characteristics of the machines glimpsed by Hecker and colleagues. The leading hypothesis is that they’re P-2 machines whose design was provided by A.Q. Khan. What makes that particularly interesting is that the Iranians aren’t known to have operated their own P-2 derivatives, the IR-2 and IR-2m, in groups of more than 10. [Update, Nov. 23: Make that “more than 20,” per the latest Iran report.]

The P-2 is a significantly better device than the P-1 or its Iranian counterpart, the IR-1. Hecker reports two important claims: first, that the North Korean facility contains about 2,000 machines; and second, that it is capable of producing 8,000 kg SWU/yr.  That may be exaggeration or wishful thinking. Then again, based on Mark Hibbs’s past reporting, the German G-2 centrifuge — the basis of Pakistan’s P-2 — was capable of 5 kg SWU/yr. per machine.

Compared to what Iran’s IR-1 has done over most of the course of its recent career, that’s a much more powerful centrifuge. Perhaps we ought to add another item to the list of reasons not to underestimate North Korea.

Update, Nov. 23: According to Dr. Hecker, the new developments at Yongbyon would not significantly interfere with restoration of the 5 MW(e) reactor, if desired. It could be restarted in about six months.


  1. rwendland (History)

    An alternative hypothesis for building the LWR next to the disabled 5MWe Magnox, and to reuse an existing building for the enrichment plant, is to save cost and/or time.

    The big saving would be reutilising the existing 5MWe spent fuel storage facility, rather than having to build a new one (or having to transfer hot spent fuel across the site). Maybe reusing the 5MWe water supply also saves some work.

    They will have to build a new, and larger, cooling tower for the 100MWt LWR – I wonder if the 5MWe Magnox (~25MWt) could dual-use that should they ever want to restart it?

    Another interesting comment is Sig’s report is that they are dismantling the not quite finished 50MWe Magnox, abandoned due to the Agreed Framework. Could some of the electrical side equipment, such as generators, still be in a state to reuse for a R&D LWR? If so, that would save significant cost and maybe time.

    • joshua (History)

      An interesting point. We’ll have to wait and see how the LWR takes shape, but the new cooling tower conceivably could go right on the site of the old one!

  2. Murray Anderson (History)

    If the centrifuges work anything like as well as the North Koreans claim, they’ll be able to sell the technology, to Iran in particular. Actually, the centrifuges don’t need to work really long-term, just long enough for the bags of gold to be delivered.
    Count on Iran and Venezuela as customers, maybe Burma too, if they’ve got the money.

    Murray Anderson

    • Carey Sublette (History)

      This raises the question – where did the DPRK get its centrifuges/centrifuge technology from?

      Is there any data available to suggest paternity of these devices?

    • joshua (History)


      Hecker approvingly cited the recent ISIS report on the NK centrifuge program, which Jeffrey also called out for praise in the previous post. It suggests that NK centrifuge experts-in-training were present at KRL in Kahuta, Pakistan from the early 1990s until 2001, when Khan was dismissed as KRL director.


      Hecker also related that the Yongbyon chief process engineer described the machines as modeled on those at Almelo (Netherlands) and Rokkasho-mura (Japan). There are at least two ways to take that, if one takes that seriously.

      The first is to recall that A) Khan appears to have acquired the G-2 design (ancestor of the P-2) while working at Almelo in 1974, and B) Japan has allegedly been an important source of nuclear expertise and dual-use technologies for North Korea for many years.

      The second is to note Hecker’s observation that the piping on top of the centrifuges at Yongbyon resembles that of a URENCO facility (e.g., Almelo). I’ve seen a picture of Rokkasho-mura and it’s essentially the same.

  3. jeannick (History)

    As events unfold , there must be some in the security council who bite their tongue rather than suggest that
    it would be a good idea to bomb the place .
    beside proving that Beijing protection doesn’t extend very far
    it would solve the problem for six months ,
    give a response more biting than paper ,
    encourage the Pyongyang to ponder the merit of talks

    • joshua (History)

      I don’t think that bombing merits serious consideration.

  4. P.E.T. (History)

    Talk about mixed signals –

    Just last month, South Korea resumed aid shipments of rice and instant noodles for the first time since early 2008.

    Now the Nork’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong.

    And,the North fired 170 shells but the South fires back with 80 shells.

    Ah, it’s just the mysterious Northeast Asia where life is cheap.

    • rwendland (History)

      The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong seems a terrible consequence of the north and south not having a sensible negotiation (for the usual kind of political reasons) about a modern approach to the Northern Limit Line (NLL). A pretty good paper outlining the issues, and calling for negotiations, seems to be:

      Before reading that I hadn’t realised that still implementing the old 1953 NLL prevents North Korea having access to its 12 nautical mile territorial waters (the US/UN defined the NLL when 3 miles was common), or its UNCLOS EEZ (eg exclusive fishing control zone) beyond the NLL. Not resolving this seems to almost inevitably brew up unfortunate disputes like we have just seen.

    • joshua (History)

      It seems to me that a sea boundary dispute is not a legitimate excuse for shelling a village — even if it is the reason cited by the side doing the shelling, as seen here:

      [update] and here:

    • rwendland (History)

      To partially correct myself, on 4 October 2007 President Roh and Kim Jong Il did sensibly declare:

      “The South and the North have agreed to create a ‘special peace and cooperation zone in the West Sea’ encompassing Haeju and vicinity in a bid to proactively push ahead with the creation of a joint fishing zone and maritime peace zone, establishment of a special economic zone, utilization of Haeju harbor, passage of civilian vessels via direct routes in Haeju and the joint use of the Han River estuary.”

      Potentially a huge step forward in solving the maritime disputes. Unhappily since then President Lee has rejected this, claiming the Northern Limit Line is a “critical border that contributes to keeping peace on our land.”

      This is from a great article by Jon Van Dyke, a maritime law expert, in 38 North. Well worth a read.

      “The Maritime Boundary between North & South Korea in the Yellow (West) Sea”

  5. Kostas (History)

    That is what North Korea says about the latest incident.

    Here is an objective view on North Korea.

    • joshua (History)

      Clearly, I was mistaken to think that the DPRK wanted for partisans online!

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