North Korea is expanding a facility used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, a move experts say likely indicate dictator Kim Jung-un plans to increase production, new satellite images obtained by CNN reveal.
Commercial imaging company Maxar captured the images earlier this week, showing construction is already underway on the facility. CNN’s Zachary Cohen shared the images on Twitter.
Jeffrey Lewis, professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and weapons expert told CNN that the changes could allow North Korea to grow nuclear material production by 25 percent.
“The most recent expansion at Yongbyon probably reflects plans to increase production of nuclear materials for weapons production,” Lewis said, adding that the construction mimics previous changes that expanded floorspace in an effort to accommodate additional centrifuges.
“The new area is approximately 1,000 square meters, enough space to house 1,000 additional centrifuges. The addition of 1,000 new centrifuges would increase the plant’s capacity to produce highly enriched uranium by 25 percent,” he continued.
Lewis told CNN that North Korea “could increase the capacity of the plant substantially” if the nation upgrades the type of centrifuges currently in use.
According to two sources familiar with the situation, United States officials are aware of the developments at the Yongbyon uranium enrichment plant and recognize the activity could mean an increase in uranium production.
The National Security Council, Department of Defense, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and CIA all declined CNN’s request for comment.
Earlier this week, North Korea launched two ballistic missiles off the nation’s coast toward Japan – a move Japan’s prime minister condemned as “absolutely outrageous.”
In a statement released Wednesday, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that it is “aware of the missile launch and are consulting closely with our allies and partners.”
“While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program,” the statement continued. “The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price also blasted North Korea’s missile launches, calling for a diplomatic approach to the hostile behavior.
“We have been very clear about what we want to see happen. We are committed to the principle that dialogue will allow us to pursue our ultimate objective and that’s quite simply the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Price said.