Satellite images show North Korean uranium mining operations are continuing

An analysis of commercial satellite imagery from 2016 to the present day indicates that operations at the Pyongsan Concentrate Pilot Plant, one of the two largest declared uranium ore concentrate facilities in North Korea, have continued, 38 North reports.

Analysts are not certain whether the ore is coming from a mine collocated on the site, raw material brought from another facility, or existing stocks.

Uranium is, of course, a key material used to produce highly enriched uranium for the country’s nuclear weapons program.

The facility at Pyongsan is thought to be where North Korea turns ore into yellowcake, an intermediate step in uranium processing after mining but before fuel fabrication or enrichment. 38 North says that commercial satellite imagery indicates “there has been significant growth in the volume of the mining spoil piles and the accumulating waste in the waste tailings pond since 2016, indicating ongoing mining, milling, and concentration activities.”

38 North notes further:

Although the water in the newly filled southwest section of the waste pond is heavily-stained and the increase in waste material is identifiable with the concentration process, it is impossible to determine if the waste is the byproduct of recently-mined uranium ore from the collocated mine, the use of existing stocks already on hand at the facility, or raw material brought in from another mine.

Analysis: This matters because as part of any future denuclearization agreement, North Korea would be prohibited from acquiring natural uranium. 

Earlier this week, official sources in North Korea noted that the government — well, Chairman Kim Jong-un — may be getting a little annoyed because he believes he has made efforts to move the denuclearization talks forward primarily by destroying what was left of a key nuclear testing facility, by not conducting additional ballistic missile tests, and by not permitting the country’s press to speak provocatively or derogatorily of President Trump, and yet U.S. sanctions on North Korea remain in place.

The U.S. has made at least one concession as well — the decision to forego the large annual Foal Eagle military exercises with South Korea, which always irritated Pyongyang. But so far, the Trump White House has not lifted any sanctions and isn’t likely to do so anytime soon.

So why is Kim continuing uranium mining operations that he must know the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China, and other interested parties are aware of? It could be he is simply hedging his bets that, if denuclearization talks break down, he will have not lost any momentum in the uranium enrichment process. 

Early last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made another trip to North Korea to advance the negotiations. Upon his departure, he claimed that Kim agreed to allow international inspectors into a key nuclear testing site.

When he asked to provide a timetable by reporters, he responded, “As soon as we get it logistically worked out. Chairman Kim said he’s ready to allow them to come in. There’s a lot of logistics that will be required to execute that.”

Will this kind of activity be a dealbreaker for the U.S.? Potentially, but not necessarily. Surely the Trump administration understands that Kim — brought up to distrust and even hate the United States — would not simply end all nuclear-related activities, at least not without receiving substantial concessions from Washington.

That said, at some point, the administration will insist that all uranium mining activities come to an end before any final agreement is reached, and that will include inspections, no doubt, as well as Kim identifying all of his nuclear-related sites.



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