Satellite reveals curious change at North Korean 'nuclear weapons site'

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·4-min read

Newly emerged satellite images show fresh construction at a secret North Korean facility believed to be used for storing weapons, as international concern grows over the regime's nuclear program.

Satellite images supplied to Yahoo News Australia taken by Maxar technologies from December 2020 to February 2021 show the secretive communist regime built a new structure to conceal tunnels at a previously identified weapons testing site.

The images taken at the Yongdoktong site, north of Pyongyang, in the country's west, show a new building which researchers say is likely intended to obscure a pair of underground tunnel entrances that lead to an elaborate facility, CNN reported.

Kim Jong-un in North Korea overlooking at a military facility. Source: AFP
Despite international sanctions, Kim Jong-un has continued to ramp up the country's weapons program. Source: AFP

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it was not clear why North Korea was bothering with the new structure because intelligence agencies had long been aware of the site and had analysed images of the tunnels underneath.

"It's a bit silly," he told Yahoo News Australia.

"It is unclear what purpose of the structure at Yongdoktong serves. One interpretation is that North Korea is attempting to obscure movement of nuclear warheads and nuclear weapons components in and out of tunnels at the Yongdoktong site," he wrote overnight on the Arms Control Wonk blog.

"Given that the location is well-known to foreign intelligence communities, however, it seems the value of the new structure is limited. Another possibility is that the new structure provides additional room for loading and unloading of nuclear-weapons related cargos which cannot be seen in overhead imagery."

Theory behind new construction at North Korean site

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, he said the latest activity is likely about giving greater control to the North Korean government when it comes to public information about its nuclear program.

“We’ve been monitoring this site for a long time, it’s probably where North Korea does a lot of design work on their nuclear weapons and it’s probably where they store most of their nuclear weapons.

“So any changes to that location are interesting," Prof Lewis said.

By making it harder to spy on its activities at the facility, North Korea can more easily control the narrative around its nuclear ambitions, giving it more options when dealing with Western powers seeking to curtail its efforts.

“North Korea is continuing to maintain its nuclear infrastructure but it is consistently taking steps to make it harder to see what they're up to, so they have more control of what information they release and what information they don't," he said.

"They'll have a better control of the news cycle."

Tunnel entrances seen near the top of the satellite image on December 5, 2019. Source: Maxar/supplied
Tunnel entrances seen near the top of the satellite image on December 5, 2019. Source: Maxar/supplied
A new structure has appeared over the tunnel entrance in North Korea.
A new structure has appeared over the tunnel entrance, seen on February 11, 2021. Source: Maxar/supplied

Ankit Panda, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of Kim Jong Un and the Bomb, said the site has previously been involved in the regime's explosives testing.

"Yongdoktong is not a 'new' name, per se. It was a site known to have been involved in early North Korean high explosives testing.

"It appears to have since been repurposed as a nuclear weapons storage site," he tweeted Wednesday.

"My expectation is that North Korea will diversify and disperse its storage sites as it matures in its handling of nuclear weapons. Talk of tactical nuclear weapons at the recent 8th Party Congress reinforces this expectation."

He added that it's possible other such storage sites now exist in the country.

North Korea's nuclear plans 'cause for serious concern'

Earlier this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency raised concerns about North Korea's continued march towards nuclear weaponry despite UN sanctions on the Asian dictatorship.

Negotiations on denuclearisation stalled for more than two years and Kim Jong Un's nuclear program is "a cause for serious concern," says Rafael Grossi, the IAEA’s director-general.

A news broadcast of a speech by Kim Jong-un.
A news broadcast of a speech by Kim Jong-un during commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the North's ruling Workers' Party held in Pyongyang last year. Source: Getty

“The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear program is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable,” he told a news conference on Tuesday (local time) after a meeting with the Vienna-based agency’s board of governors.

A report produced last month by independent sanctions monitors for the UN said the North Korean government "produced fissile material, maintained nuclear facilities and upgraded its ballistic missile infrastructure" throughout 2020.

The so-called Hermit Kingdom also continued to seek material and technology for the programs from abroad.

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