A massive construction effort by North Korea to expand a chemical-processing complex might be fueling a weapons program, according to experts.
For the last eight years, Pyongyang has been working on a "major effort to modernize" the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex, the expert website 38 North said in an image analysis published on Thursday. First constructed in the 1970s, the complex produces much of the isolated country's fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides.
But according to Japanese and South Korean officials -- as well as North Korean defectors -- the site also plays a role in the generation of chemical-warfare materials.
The facility's modernization "has the potential to materially improve the quantity and quality of the North Korean chemical weapons inventory," wrote North Korean defense expert Joseph Bermudez.
Though it is difficult to determine what specific chemical-weapon functions the Namhung complex performs, it appears the site produces chemical weapon precursors that are then transported elsewhere for mixing and pouring into munitions, according to the 38 North analysis. The assessment is based on surveillance satellite photographs, including some taken as recently as December, as well as published North Korean propaganda images.
Bermudez points specifically to the construction of an anthracite coal gasification facility as being likely to benefit North Korea's chemical-weapons program. Anthracite coal -- of which North Korea has significant deposits -- is an ingredient used to make carbide. That substance, in turn, is needed in the production of mustard agent, according to a 2003 analysis by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Anthracite gasification is also used to produce fertilizer.
Since 2011, the anthracite gasification plant has had at least two processing lines, said 38 North, a project of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Between 2006 and 2013, roughly 106 facilities and industrial structures were built at the chemical complex, "an unprecedented endeavor during a politically turbulent and economically constrained period," Bermudez said.