Jeffrey LewisConstruction at Yongbyon 50 Mwe Reactor

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) has released a commercial satellite photograph of North Korea’s 50 Mwe reactor that appears to confirm June 2005 press reports that Pyongyang has resumed construction.

In June 2005, I argued that analysts could easily confirm with satellite imagery whether or not North Korea had resumed construction of the 50 MWe reactor at Yongbyon and the 200 MWe reactor at Taechon—something the North Koreans told John Lewis they had done.

Working from a June 2005 commercial satellite image, John Pike at Global found no evidence of construction.

What sort of evidence would be visible from space that might indicate resumed construction?

Over the next two months, Nobuyoshi Sakajiri in the Asahi Shimbun reported on two activities detected by US reconnaissance satellites that suggested a resumption of construction: North Korea reportedly brought a mobile crane to the construction site and layed fresh gravel on the roads.

  • In July, Sakajiri reported that “The US Government has confirmed by a reconnaissance satellite that a crane truck was carried into the construction site of a nuclear reactor (50,000 kilowatts) in Yongbyon…” Nobuyoshi Sakajiri, “North Korea Brings In Crane Vehicle in Nuclear Reactor Construction Site Probably Six-Party Talks in Mind,”Asahi Shimbun, 19 July 2005, translated in FBIS: JPP-2005-07-19-000005.
  • In August, Sakajiri reported “North Korea is also poised to resume the construction of its half-built 50,000 kw-nuclear reactor in Yo’ngbyo’n, as seen from such moves as covering the roads around the site with gravel.” Nobuyoshi Sakajiri, “North Korea Resumes Operation of Nuclear Reactor—US Satellite Monitored Before the Opening of Six-Party Talks,” Asahi Shimbun, 21 August 2005, FBIS: JPP-2005-08-21-00000.

The satellite image released by ISIS clearly shows fresh gravel, and may show the presence of mobile crane. ISIS also released a commercial image of a steam plume from North Korea’s smaller 5 Mwe reactor at Yongbyon, suggesting the reactor is operating.

For a review of North Korea’s plutonium stockpile, I recommend The North Korean Plutonium Stock Mid-2005 from ISIS.


Why I do bring these two images up now, when everbody is so psyched about the Six Party Talks Joint Statement?

The Joint Statement does not require North Korea to stop construction of the 50 Mwe reactor or require North Korea to shut down the 5 Mwe reactor, although Chris Hill told reporters that, in his opinion, “the time to turn it off would be about now.”

This agreement explicitly does not call for a “freeze” on North Korea’s nuclear activities. We go straight to the end game. It’s disarmament or bust.

Let’s not get into “bust”.

Thorny questions about the 5 and 50 Mwe reactors will be tackled—along with the question of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program—during the implementation talks scheduled for November.

As a first step, North Korea will have to issue a declaration regarding their nuclear activities, a step that Jack Pritchard thinks may be thorny:

What you’re going to get is in November, when the actual negotiations take place—and I think what the United States is going to be looking for early on is a declaration by the North Koreans as to what their program consists of—what facilities, which we know pretty well, how much plutonium that they’ve extracted, how many devices, nuclear weapons do they have, and, more importantly, that is not specified but is embedded in the agreement today is a linkage to any uranium enrichment.

What do they have that related to what AQ Khan network through Pakistan gave to North Korea in terms of centrifuges, what other elements they have done for themselves—that all has to be accounted for; it can’t be put off indefinitely.

A serious problem may arise if North Korea’s programs are less extensive than US intelligence currently believes. Then US policymakers will face a repeat of the pre-Iraq scenario: Do you believe the North Koreans or your own lying eyes?

All the while, North Korea can keep irradiating fuel rods.

The point: Getting a statement of principles shouldn’t have been this hard. What’s going to happen when they actually start talking about the really tough stuff?

Tonight’s Nelson Report contains this apt summation from an informed, non-official observer:

Well, yesterday we agreed to agree later and disagree now. As of today, we still disagree. The roots of the interim agreement are pretty shallow and we should not expect anything different for a while (if ever). That’s all I read into it.


Look at this paragraph by Glenn Kessler and Edward Cody in an otherwise outstanding Washington Post article:

Although that issue was not mentioned in the document, U.S. officials said it is covered by the pledge to dismantle “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs” and by a separate reference to a 1992 agreement with South Korea, which prohibited uranium enrichment.

Notice the use of “dismantle”? Bad choice for a paraphrase—the Joint Statement actually calls on North Korea to “abandon” the nuclear programs.

The Chosun Ilbo reports that the word “dismantle” was struck out of the agreement in favor of “abandon” because North Korea wants to link dismantlement of Yongbyon to progress on a light water reactor deal.


  1. James (History)


    I think you’re being a little too hard on the Administration with this “Joint Statement.”

    Ralph Cossa of CSIS sums up the situation nicely, without disregarding the obvious shortcomings of this document that yourself and others have pointed out.

    “What the statement did – and still does – was avoid a feared complete breakdown in the talks. It makes a future breakthrough possible by providing a set of agreed principles and mutually shared objectives to work toward.” (

    This view seems to be closest to the reality of the situation according to that infamous New York Times source: the unnamed senior official.

    “As this unfolded over the weekend, the Chinese increased pressure on the United States to sign – or take responsibility for a breakdown in the talks…”At one point they told us that we were totally isolated on this and that they would go to the press, and explain that the United States sank the accord,” the senior administration official said.” (

  2. Josh Narins (History)

    How does a Chinese powerplay against America amount to a victory?

  3. arm-chair interested party

    Just because there is a resurfaced road, a possible mobile crane, and steam plume show that there is a reconstruction of the facility? Does resurfacing an access road constitute a reconstruction effort we should be concerned with? Should a presence of a possible mobile crane which can be used for everything from shinning the brass lettering of the name of the facility at a front entrance to bleaching out walls before a visit by a VIP, something we should be concerned with? Now, I don’t even know if they do have such brass lettering or do bleach the walls, but these are pretty harmless things which can be done with a mobile crane. Access road may have been resurfaced just in case they need start reconstruction or before a VIP visit. Perhaps there are more information, such as scores of trucks unloading supplies which provide more substantive support, but the information presented on this webpage doesn’t seem very persuasive to me. Speculative at best.

  4. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Slow down.

    The steam plume is coming from the 5 Mwe reactor—not the 50 Mwe reactor. That means the 5 Mwe reactor is operating.

    Now, the question of construction on the 50 Mwe reactor is difficult—satellites can’t peer inside buildings, so intelligence analysts only have circumstantial evidence such as placing gravel on roads, vehicle activity and the presence of construction equipment from which to make an educated guess.

    In this case, the North Koreans have been telling foreign visitors that they have restarted construction.

    The visual evidence is consistent with those statements.

    The point is that the Joint Statement does not require North Korea to stop any of these activities.