Increased Activity at North Korea's Main Nuclear Site
U.S. think tank 38 North reported increased activity at North Korea's primary nuclear site following leader Kim Jong Un's order to boost bomb fuel production. Satellite images taken on March 3 and 17 revealed the heightened activity, which could suggest the completion and operational status of an Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) at the Yongbyon site.
Yongbyon Reactor Operations and Construction Developments
The satellite images showed that a 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon continued to operate, with construction beginning on a support building surrounding the ELWR. Water discharges from the reactor's cooling system were also detected. In addition, new construction projects were observed around the uranium enrichment plant at Yongbyon, likely to expand its capabilities.
Kim Jong Un's Directive for Expanding Nuclear Arsenal
The increased activity at the nuclear complex appears to align with Kim Jong Un's recent order to boost fissile material production to expand North Korea's nuclear weapons arsenal. On Tuesday, North Korea unveiled new, smaller nuclear warheads and pledged to produce more weapons-grade nuclear material while condemning increased military exercises by South Korea and the United States.
Uncertainty Surrounding Miniaturized Nuclear Warheads
Whether North Korea has fully developed the miniaturized nuclear warheads required for smaller weapons it has displayed remains unclear. Analysts believe that perfecting such warheads would likely be a primary objective if North Korea resumes nuclear testing, which has not occurred since 2017. South Korea and the United States have warned since early 2022 that North Korea may restart nuclear testing anytime.
Estimates on North Korea's Nuclear Warhead Inventory
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated in a report last year that North Korea had assembled up to 20 nuclear warheads and likely possessed enough fissile material for approximately 45–55 nuclear devices.