The scope of the North Korean nuclear program is much larger than previously estimated by the west, as the North develops new nuclear capabilities at an alarming pace. Pyongyang is not trying to hide its activities, but openly invites U.S. nuclear scientists to witness the advanced state of the program, creating substential deterrence and pressuring Washington to enter negotiations.

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yongbyon nuclear facility eros B satellite photo
North Korean wants to complete the construction of a new, 100-megawatt light-water reactor at the nuclear site at Yongbyon by 2012. An uranium enrichment facility has already been established at a nearby location. EROS-B satellite photo by Imagesat International.

U.S. nuclear scientists recently invited to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility had the opportunity to witness the constrcution of a new light water reactor and new uranium enrichment facility accommodating thousands of centrifuges. One of the U.S. scientists, Jack Pritchard, a specialist on North Korea and retired US Army officer, reported upon his return the new reactor at Yongbyon, located near the location of the demolished cooling tower constructed to support the 5MW reactor constructed by the North in the 1990s. The site is visible in the image above, taken by the Israeli EROS B satellite on October 29, 2010.

The new reactor under construction is only part of Pyongyang’s revamped nuclear technology development. According to Robert Carlin, one of the three scientists visiting Yongbyon recently, the Yongbyon facility also includes a large uranium enrichment facility. “The North Koreans say it was 2,000 [centrifuges]. It was a lot.” said Carlin. “None of the experts that I knew predicted the North Koreans could build anything like this number… Everybody predicted they were at a very early stage,” Carlin said.

Diplomats and scientists alike largely agree that the latest developments are a game-changer. A military attack is unthinkable, but so is allowing a runaway nuclear program. In a report on the meeting, Carlin’s colleague Siegfried Hecker concluded: “The only hope appears to be engagement.” That means restarting stalled negotiations with North Korean leaders, whose hand appears to have been dramatically strengthened.

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Photo: Imagesat International

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