U.S. Intel Chief Confirms Growing North Korean Reactor Relaunch

An activist takes part in an anti-North Korea demonstration last year in Seoul. U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper on Wednesday backed independent reports that Pyongyang appears to have restarted a reactor capable of producing nuclear-weapon plutonium.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
Jan. 29, 2014, 9:46 a.m.

North Korea ap­pears to have re­star­ted a So­viet-era plutoni­um pro­duc­tion re­act­or, the top U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial told law­makers on Wed­nes­day.

Find­ings also sug­gest that the isol­ated state is “ex­pand­ing the size” of a nearby urani­um-en­rich­ment cent­ri­fuge plant, Na­tion­al In­tel­li­gence Dir­ect­or James Clap­per told the Sen­ate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee in a yearly threat as­sess­ment. The ap­par­ent moves ap­peared to fall in line with North Korea’s stated in­ten­tion to ex­pand op­er­a­tions for gen­er­at­ing nuc­le­ar-bomb fuel, and with in­de­pend­ent re­ports of new activ­it­ies at its Yongby­on nuc­le­ar com­plex over the last year.

“We have long as­sessed that, in Py­ongy­ang’s view, its nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies are in­ten­ded for de­terrence, in­ter­na­tion­al prestige and co­er­cive dip­lomacy,” Clap­per stated in pre­pared com­ments. “We do not know Py­ongy­ang’s nuc­le­ar doc­trine or em­ploy­ment con­cepts.”

Sur­veil­lance im­ages of Yongby­on from last sum­mer showed steam rising from a fa­cil­ity near North Korea’s graph­ite-mod­er­ated re­act­or, sug­gest­ing the plutoni­um site had re­launched, ac­cord­ing to a Septem­ber ana­lys­is by the ex­pert web­site “38 North.”

The likely ex­pan­sion of North Korea’s urani­um-cent­ri­fuge plant came to light in an Au­gust ana­lys­is by the In­sti­tute for Sci­ence and In­ter­na­tion­al Se­cur­ity, a think tank in Wash­ing­ton. The or­gan­iz­a­tion poin­ted to fur­ther activ­ity near the site in a Decem­ber re­port, but said the ob­ject­ives of the work could not “con­clus­ively be iden­ti­fied.”

Sep­ar­ately, Clap­per called at­ten­tion to North Korea’s fo­cus on “de­vel­op­ing long-range mis­sile tech­no­logy that is cap­able of pos­ing a dir­ect threat to the United States.”

Py­ongy­ang ap­pears to have “already taken ini­tial steps” to de­ploy its KN-08 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile, though the weapon “re­mains un­tested,” he said in the re­port.

In an Oc­to­ber ana­lys­is of satel­lite pho­tos, in­de­pend­ent ex­perts said North Korea’s Dongchang-ri mis­sile com­plex ap­peared to be host­ing con­struc­tion of a new mo­bile-mis­sile launch pad cap­able of test-fir­ing the KN-08.

Clap­per said North Korea has “dis­played” the weapon on two oc­ca­sions. In­de­pend­ent ob­serv­ers, though, judge past show­ings of the weapon to have in­volved rep­licas of grow­ing soph­ist­ic­a­tion.

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