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U.S., South Korean leaders to press North to end nuclear program as satellite images reveal increased weapons plant activity

U.S., South Korean leaders to press North to end nuclear program as satellite images reveal increased weapons plant activity


North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile has roughly doubled in the past four years, and United States satellite imagery reveals that key parts of a once inactive nuclear fuel plant in Yongbyon have increased their thermal signature in recent months, according to The New York Times newspaper.

Such unresolved issues surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program “deeply concern” U.S. President Joe Biden, pictured, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two leaders vowed to refocus efforts to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program, and the U.S. plans to deploy a new special envoy to the region to help do so.

“The most urgent common task that our two countries must undertake is achieving complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said following his May 2021 meeting with President Biden in Washington, D.C., according to The Associated Press.

For his part, President Biden said he remains open to meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — under the right terms — to discuss and achieve total denuclearization.

“If there was a commitment on which we met, then I would meet with [Kim]. And the commitment has to be that there is discussion about his nuclear arsenal,” President Biden said, according to CNBC. “What I would not do is what has been done in the recent past. I would not give him all he’s looking for, international recognition as legitimate, and give him what allowed him to move in a direction of appearing to be more serious about what he wasn’t at all serious about.”

Thermal infrared satellite imagery of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, a major facility where North Korea’s nuclear program began in the 1960s, indicate that in March and April 2021, activity involving heating buildings and operating support systems had resumed, according to Beyond Parallel, a program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Korea Chair designed to provide transparency and understanding about Korean unification.

“After months, if not years, of general inactivity, the Radiochemistry Laboratory is either currently engaged in a new reprocessing campaign to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods and expand North Korea’s inventory of fissile material for nuclear weapons or preparing for the start of a new reprocessing campaign,” Beyond Parallel reported in April 2021. “This is indicated not only by the small wispy plume of steam or smoke emanating from a support building adjacent to the main reprocessing halls seen in the multispectral imagery published in our March report and an additional spectral imagery during the intervening weeks.”

Compared with satellite images from January 2021, thermal imaging captured in March and April revealed an increase in thermal patterns over the centrifuge plant and “new moderate-to-significant thermal patterns at the thermal plant in the research area and at several of the laboratory and office complexes to its north,” Beyond Parallel reported.

The findings bolster comments by military leaders such as U.S. Army Gen. Paul LaCamera, who said that North Korea has not taken any steps toward denuclearization, according to The National Interest magazine. Currently commander of U.S. Army Pacific and President Biden’s nominee to lead U.S. Forces Korea, LaCamera said it’s unlikely that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons arsenal and production capabilities. He recommended a more robust approach than just sanctions to achieve denuclearization.

“Economic sanctions must be combined with a whole-of-government approach, including all elements of national power and the international community to convince the [North Korean] regime to return to meaningful negotiations,” LaCamera said, according to The National Interest.

Tasked with helping fine-tune the U.S.’s North Korea strategy is Sung Kim, named in late May 2021 by President Biden as special envoy to North Korea. Kim, U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, will continue to serve in that role while also fulfilling duties for his new assignment, according to NK News. He previously served as special envoy to multinational talks with North Korea under then-U.S. President Barack Obama.

Moon applauded Kim’s appointment and President Biden’s strong remarks and continued commitment to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. “The world is welcoming America’s return and keeping their hopes high for America’s leadership more than ever before,” Moon said, according to CNBC.