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Report: Secret North Korean facility likely building nuclear centrifuges

Cascade of gas centrifuges used to produce enriched uranium. (U.S. Department of Energy Archives/Released)
December 29, 2020

A mysterious North Korean facility whose purpose has been speculated for two years, may in fact be a manufacturing plant for making nuclear centrifuges, according to a Dec. 18 report by the 38 North project.

North Korea observers have been watching the development of buildings outside the capital city of Pyongyang, known as Kangson, since they began construction in the early 2000s, with various observers speculating the facility may be used to enrich uranium.

Olli Heinonen, the former Deputy Director-General for Safeguards at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in the Dec. 18 report that new analysis of satellite imagery over Kangson shows the North Korean facility may indeed be used to make new uranium centrifuges.

Heinonen, who is also a fellow at the Stimson Center, an international peace and security think tank, said satellite imagery suggests Kangson lacks the infrastructure typically used in North Korea and elsewhere to enrich uranium. Instead, Heinonen said, “the characteristics of the site are more consistent with a plant that could manufacture components for centrifuges.”

The 38 North report about Kangson’s intended purpose could impact how future U.S. administrations negotiate with North Korea on the issue of its nuclear program. Denuclearization talks between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stalled, in part due to suspicions North Korea wasn’t disclosing the full extent of its nuclear program. Kangson’s still unknown purpose has been part of ongoing questions about North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

“If the issue of undeclared facilities is going to be a factor in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, as it was in Hanoi, the more we can learn about these suspected facilities, the better we can assess their role and value to North Korea’s overall nuclear weapons development,” 38 North project deputy director Jenny Town told Reuters.

Kangson does have some features of a uranium enrichment facility but Heinonen’s report notes the facility lacks several key components, such as air conditioning units, installations for pretreating assembled uranium centrifuges and removing or decontaminating old centrifuges, which would be essential for a uranium enrichment facility.

Kangson also appears to lack uranium hexafluoride (UF6), a key compound for uranium enrichment.

An August UN report by the United Nations Security Council Panel of Experts noted that member states monitoring Kangson have not observed any transfers of UF6 cylinders to Kangson. Heinonen said while commercial satellites might not pick up transfers of UF6, he expects member nations would have more extensive monitoring for such transfers. He said Kangson would need 40 to 60 transfers of standard-sized UF6 cylinders to support enriching uranium to the 90 percent purity needed in weapons-grade uranium.

Heinonen also assessed Kangson’s security features are not on par with known North Korean uranium enrichment plants, such as the Yongbyon nuclear complex. He said the site’s security features are more in line with what would be seen at a typical North Korean military-industrial complex.

Heinonen concluded his report stating, “The true function of the Kangson complex can only be established by an on-site inspection, but until then, continuous monitoring of activities at the site is warranted.”