Why North Korea Appears to Be Expanding Its Nuclear Arsenal
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea raised hopes that Kim Jong Un will stop developing or even surrender his nuclear weapons. But security experts point to satellite images that they say show North Korea ramping up production of its arsenal over the past year.
Photo composite: Sharon Shi
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(electronic beeps and tones) - [Narrator] This site right here is what the international community has long been worried about. The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center is North Korea's most important nuclear facility. This is where the country produces plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, chemical elements that make nuclear bombs so dangerous and powerful. (missile whooshing) North Korea said it conducted its latest nuclear tests in 2017, at a time when tensions with the US were running high. - They will be met with fire and fury. - [Narrator] And then, everything changed. Since that historic Singapore summit last year, President Trump has been courting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. - He's a very talented man. - [Narrator] It raised hopes all around the world. Would North Korea really be willing to surrender its nuclear arsenal? But analysts say satellite images of the isolated country suggest a very different story. Despite Kim Jong-un's summit diplomacy, his scientists have aggressively ramped up production of nuclear material and long-range missiles. - Kim Jong-un gets to share the stage with world leaders like US President Donald Trump. On the other hand, he also gets to develop his nuclear missile arsenal. You could say he's getting to have his cake and eat it too. - [Narrator] So, what exactly is North Korea doing right now? Let's take a closer look at satellite images from the last 12 months. (target beeping) The Yongbyon nuclear complex is massive. Hundreds of buildings spread over three square miles. It's located next to a river that cools down the facility's nuclear reactors. - [Jenny] At the uranium enrichment facility, we see continued activity around it. - [Narrator] Jenny Town is a North Korea specialist who works with former CIA operatives and security experts all over the world. Her team has been analyzing satellite images of Yongbyon for the last seven years, and their opinion is unanimous. North Korea has been producing nuclear material for the past year. - Here they've left this cylinder which looks like it could be a liquid nitrogen container that would be necessary for an enrichment process. At first, when it's still on the truck bed, it's here. Later on, you'll see it closer to the centrifuge building itself. - [Narrator] Experts have noticed other signs of activity. Here, you see crowds of employees around the facility. This may be a shipping container delivering materials. Winter also reveals other details. - You see, specially in the centrifuge building, there's no snow there while there is snow on the rooftops of other buildings. And so that can be an indicator that this building is being used, that it's heated, and that it's hotter than the other buildings. - [Narrator] The Yongbyon nuclear complex has been at the center of denuclearization talks for a long time. (explosion booms) - During the six-party talks, blowing up the cooling tower was a sign of North Korea's commitment to denuclearization. However, it proved so far that the North had no intention to denuclearize because since then they have further developed their nuclear weapons arsenal. Their nuclear weapons are much more sophisticated now than they ever were before. - [Narrator] At the Vietnam summit in February, Kim Jong-un offered to dismantle this nuclear center in exchange for lifting US-led sanctions on his country. But the Trump administration refused, why? Because Washington said Pyongyang needed to dismantle more than just Yongbyon. There is a sophisticated and complex supply chain, including several clandestine sites which defense analysts believe are just as dangerous as Yongbyon. (target beeping) 45 miles from Yongbyon is a factory that experts say manufactures missiles. They essentially carry nuclear warheads to the intended target. The ones produced in this facility are the famous North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, that can reach the US. (missile whooshing) You can see signs of activity, like these trucks, shipping containers, and cranes around the facility. - At the beginning of the year last year, Kim Jong-un told his scientists and engineers to mass produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles, and to accelerate efforts for deploying them for action. - [Narrator] International sanctions have blocked North Korea's access to some materials needed to build its advanced missiles. - And Pyongyang has actually found a way to get around a lot of the sanctions that have been imposed on it. A lot of analysts now believe that North Korea can produce some of the parts for the heavy trucks that it now launches missiles from. And Japan is concerned that Pyongyang is able to import some fine chemicals that can be used to make smartphone screens but also can be used for weapons of mass destruction. - [Narrator] So, what kind of weapons does North Korea have at its disposal right now? Analysts at the US Defense Intelligence Agency say it could've produced 12 nuclear weapons since the first Trump-Kim handshake in Singapore last year. In total, analysts say Pyongyang could possess between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons right now. These could be mounted on one of its new Hwasong-15 rockets, developed in 2017, which are capable of reaching the US. In front of the international community, it appeared North Korea had made a concession. Before talks, Pyongyang had not only conducted a nuclear test but also frequently tested its missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. But around the time of Kim's meeting with Trump in Singapore, the tests came to a halt. Right after the first face-to-face meeting with President Trump, North Korea even dismantled a long-time test site, the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. - This concession was actually relatively easy for them to make because North Korea in many ways has moved beyond these old fixed launch sites, and they're firing a lot of missiles now from the back of trucks. And if North Korea's no longer focused on testing, that's only because they're busy producing a lot of these weapons, they're making more of them. - [Narrator] After the failed Hanoi summit in February of this year, satellite images showed North Korea rebuilding the site. It was widely viewed as an act of provocation for reaching no deal with the US. And that moratorium on testing? Well, that didn't last too long either. In May and June, North Korea fired two short-range rockets into the sea between Korea and Japan. Despite the evidence gathered by security analysts, the Trump administration has been downplaying North Korea's continuing nuclear operations. - Do you think he's still building nuclear weapons? - I don't know. I hope not. He promised me he wouldn't be. - [Narrator] And Pyongyang hasn't commented on whether its nuclear operations are still ongoing. So, while Trump and Kim keep talking, North Korea appears to be quietly doubling down on its nuclear arsenal, right under the nose of the rest of the world. (gentle music)