North Korea: Keeping Its Powder Dry

What to Make of Recent North Korean Statements

Martha Raddatz and Jake Sullivan on “This Week.” Source: ABC News

There are signs that Washington and Pyongyang are in the early, cautious stages of a diplomatic dance. On April 30, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki revealed that the administration had completed its North Korea policy review. Pyongyang has so far remained silent on Psaki’s statement. However, on May 2, though they had doubtless read Psaki’s remarks, the North Koreans decided to hold off commenting on the review and instead issued a muted response critical of President Joseph Biden’s brief mention of the North in his April 28 address to Congress.

Three key points demonstrate an effort by the North to signal that it wasn’t going to ignore the president’s singling out the North as a “threat” in his first address to the Congress, but in a carefully calibrated way:

The reaction to the president’s remarks was in the name of Director General for American Affairs Kwon Jong Gun rather than in a statement at a more authoritative level. Confining the response to Kwon’s level gives Pyongyang room to respond differently and more authoritatively at a later time.Kwon’s comments did not include any personal attacks on the president or refer to him by name.The statement’s bottom line was a vaguely formulated threat wrapped in uncertain timing: “…we will be compelled to press for corresponding measures, and with time the U.S. will find itself in a very grave situation.” Moreover, the threat of DPRK action was braked by an important conditional—“if” the US still held to an outdated perspective, it would face a “worse and worse crisis beyond control.”

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s remarks on a May 2 Sunday morning talk show, coming on the heels of Kwon Jong Gun’s statement, could suggest to the North that Washington was in a similarly cautious mode, and was not going to be distracted by low-level criticism from Pyongyang. Moreover, Sullivan’s language describing a “calibrated, practical, measured approach” could strike Pyongyang as similar to language it was using in 2018 to illustrate its ideas and is likely a welcomed overture.

For now, though, North Korea appears to be waiting for a fuller public presentation of the policy review before responding. Meanwhile, what might have some people in Pyongyang sitting up in their chairs and contemplating the next move is the April 30 Washington Post article that cited a senior administration official as saying that the administration would “build on” the June 2018 Singapore agreement.

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Estimating North Korea’s Nuclear Stockpiles: An Interview With Siegfried Hecker

(Source: Stanford University)

38 North recently interviewed Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker, renowned expert on North Korea’s nuclear program and a senior fellow emeritus at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, about the status of North Korea’s plutonium and uranium enrichment production and implications for the North’s nuclear arsenal. Below are excerpts from that interview.

38 North: Recent assessments of North Korea’s nuclear program estimate that they may have up to 90 nuclear weapons. What do you make of this estimate?

Siegfried Hecker: That’s much too high. I think 20 to 60 is possible, with the most likely number being 45. These numbers are based on estimates of how much fissile material—that is, plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) bomb fuel—North Korea has produced. In other words, it may have enough fissile material for 45 nuclear weapons, but that does not necessarily mean it has produced that many at this time.

Plutonium production can be estimated quite accurately. It is produced in the North’s 5 Megawatt-electric (5 MWe) nuclear reactor, and satellite imagery allows us to monitor when the reactor is operating. Prior to 2008, the best signature was a plume emanating from the reactor’s cooling tower. The North blew up the cooling tower as a political goodwill gesture in June 2008. When the reactor was restarted in August 2013, they decided not to rebuild the cooling tower but rather go to the river for cooling—essentially creating a heat exchange mechanism using river water. Now, reactor operation is more difficult, but not impossible, to monitor.

My current estimate is that North Korea has a plutonium inventory in the range of 25 to 48 kilograms. Based on what we have learned about reactor characteristics, including from my visits to the Yongbyon nuclear complex, North Korea can produce at most six kilograms per year at full operation. My inventory estimate is based on production estimates, production losses and estimates of amounts expended in nuclear tests.

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The Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Plant Is One Year Old, but Is It Operating?

May 1 marks the one-year anniversary of the opening of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory.[1] The factory is an important piece in Kim Jong Un’s push to build up North Korea’s domestic chemical industry and fertilizer production, as part of larger efforts to increase agricultural production and save foreign currency. However, after 12 months, it remains unclear if the plant is fully operational. Commercial satellite imagery over the last year indicates a gradual increase of activity throughout the complex, but no major activity was observed, and no state industrial achievements for this site were reported. This suggests that production is likely still at an early stage.

Figure 1. Overview of the Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory.

Satellite image © 2021 Maxar Technologies. All rights reserved. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

Background

The Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory is one of several factories intended to develop a C1 chemical industry that Kim first called for in a speech at the Seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea in June 2016 and has reiterated in his new year’s addresses since then.[2] Its construction began in 2017 and was first reported in state media in February 2018.[3] Underlining its importance, the site received regular inspection visits throughout its construction from senior leaders, including Pak Pong Ju, Kim Jae Ryong and Choe Ryong Hae. Kim Jong Un visited the site twice last year; in January to inspect progress and again in May to inaugurate the plant.[4]

As North Korea is rich in coal, development of a C1 chemical industry could supply a large amount of raw materials to the economy, reduce dependence on imports of oil and fertilizers and save foreign currency.

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The Challenges of South and North Korea Hosting the 2032 Olympics

(Source: AP)

Historically, the Olympics have played an important role in inter-Korean dialogue, and majorities of South Koreans, according to polling data, support joint bids. Nonetheless, South and North Korea are likely to be frustrated again in their efforts to field combined teams because of political opposition in the South, problematic inter-Korean relations and reservations about the costs South Korea would have to bear to subsidize North Korean participation.

History

Earlier this month, South and North Korea submitted a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics, a plan initially agreed upon in 2018. This is not the first time the two countries have floated such an idea; they also talked about bidding to co-host the 2021 Asian Games. During the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the two Koreas fielded a combined ice hockey team, and the North Korean pairs skaters were invited to the figure skating gala exhibition despite placing 13th in the competition. The Koreas even discussed joint Olympics teams for this summer’s Games in Tokyo, including for basketball, field hockey, judo and rowing, prior to North Korea’s decision to pull out due to COVID-19 concerns, dashing South Korean hopes of inter-Korean sports diplomacy.

The 2018 joint hockey team was controversial because several of the North Korean players were not as skilled as their southern counterparts, and both countries spent so much time training separately that combining skills at the last minute would be difficult. Many South Korean members of the Olympic team disagreed with the government’s actions, arguing that a sporting event was inappropriate for diplomatic engagement. Additionally, the linguistic differences in the Korean spoken by each country’s players undermined communication. These factors resulted in protests in Seoul and thousands of signatures on a petition advocating for separate teams. A jointly hosted Olympics, which to date has received little attention, may generate a similar public backlash in South Korea.

Challenges to a Joint Bid

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What to Make of China’s New Special Representative on Korean Peninsula Affairs

(Source: Embassy of China in the UK)

On April 12, China announced the appointment of its new special representative on Korean Peninsula affairs—Ambassador Liu Xiaoming. Amb. Liu’s career has been most notable for two things: he was the Chinese Ambassador to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) when North Korea conducted its first two nuclear tests (from 2006 to 2010); and he served the longest single ambassadorial posting (from 2010 to 2021 in the United Kingdom) in the history of People’s Republic of China (PRC), skillfully navigating a turbulent ten years of China’s foreign policy. The choice for this assignment shows Beijing’s desire to entrust this delicate issue to a veteran diplomat with rich experience in Pyongyang. However, what’s more interesting is the timing and message this appointment sends, suggesting China sees renewed diplomacy on the horizon.

History of the Position

The office of the special representative on Korean Peninsula affairs was first set up in 2003 under a slightly different title—ambassador on Korean Peninsula affairs—and tasked with diplomatic engagement with parties related to the Six Party Talks. From 2003 to 2011, the position was kept at a director-general level and filled by Ambassador Ning Fukui, Li Bin, Chen Naiqing, and Yang Houlan consecutively.

In early 2010, China elevated the office to the “special representative on Korean Peninsula affairs” and its ranking from the director-general level to the vice-ministerial level. The first special representative was Ambassador Wu Dawei, who had been China’s vice foreign minister since 2004. He was in the position for seven and a half years until handing the torch over to Ambassador Kong Xuanyou, assistant foreign minister, in August 2017. Ambassador Kong was promoted to vice foreign minister in January of 2018 and appointed Chinese ambassador to Japan in May 2019. Since then, the position for the special representative on Korean Peninsula affairs has been vacant. In June 2019, the Chinese Foreign Ministry acknowledged that “China will select a qualified person for the position of the special envoy and will release information when it becomes available,” although no appointment followed.[1]

Timing of the New Appointment

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Construction Resumes at Nampho Port

Commercial satellite imagery indicates that construction work on a new quay at the petroleum, oil and lubricant (POL) storage area in Nampho port has resumed after a winter break. Work on the container dock has also resumed, with a large probable storage building nearing completion.

Nampho is one of North Korea’s largest and busiest ports and a key entry point for cargo from China and Southeast Asia. The city is just 40 kilometers from Pyongyang and linked to the capital by a railway line and the Youth Hero Motorway.

New Quay

Preparations for the new quay began in October when trucks were observed delivering dirt to a site approximately 300 meters north of the riverbank. A large pile of dirt appeared near the riverbank during the first week of November, and construction began on November 8.

However, the work appeared to last only three days. From November 11 onwards, the quay’s footprint remained unchanged through the winter months when Nampho port is largely ice locked.

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The Case for Maximizing Engagement With North Korea

As the Biden administration’s North Korea policy review nears completion, there is growing worry that it could dig in its heels on previous US efforts to change North Korea’s behavior through isolation and pressure. Early signals indicate the Biden team is prioritizing pressure among many options. Several experts, however, believe this approach will continue to fail because it incorrectly assumes North Korea will yield to coercive tactics and that China will cooperate in this effort.

Instead, the United States needs a more effective strategy for dealing with the reality of an insecure and nuclear-armed North Korea. Maintaining deterrence and preserving denuclearization as a long-term goal are, of course, essential. However, a practical approach to US and regional security should also maximize the opportunities and channels for interacting with the North Korean government and its people. Greater and more meaningful interaction on both governmental and nongovernmental levels can help clarify our respective interests and concerns, reduce miscommunication and miscalculation, build mutual trust, and perhaps even contribute to North Korea becoming a more responsible, stable and integrated member of the international community.

A History of Disengagement and Cautious Engagement

Since the signing of the armistice in 1953, US administrations have largely disengaged from North Korea. As part of its broader efforts to contain the Soviet Union and build an alliance security architecture in Asia, Washington ignored Pyongyang diplomatically while maintaining a strong military posture in South Korea to deter North Korean aggression. This posture expanded to include nuclear-armed systems in 1958—a direct violation of the armistice agreement signed just five years prior—which helped midwife Pyongyang’s obsession with obtaining its own nuclear deterrent.

Only when the upstart country began posing a nuclear threat in the early 1990s did the United States engage in senior-level talks, which led to a new era of dialogue over the next two decades. Still, many US officials seemed reluctant to invest in long-term relations, believing that the regime faced collapse in the near term.

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Pyongyang Development Projects off to a Strong Start

Commercial satellite imagery indicates early progress on the construction of thousands of new apartments at two sites in Pyongyang. Demolition and ground clearance work began at both locations—one in central Pyongyang and one in the city’s Sadong District—immediately after visits by Kim Jong Un in late March and early April.

The apartments are part of Kim’s pledge made at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in January to build 50,000 apartments in Pyongyang over the next five years.[1] The quick start and high profile of the two projects are part of the daily propaganda that encourages citizens to work hard to accomplish the numerous goals set out at the meeting.

Pothong River Apartments

The central Pyongyang site is along the Pothong River on land previously occupied by the headquarters of the International Taekwon-Do Federation. It is in a prime position in the city, located next to the Mansudae Assembly Hall and near Mansudae Hill, Pyongyang No. 1 Primary and Middle Schools and the headquarters of the WPK.

Figure 1. The Pothong River site location in central Pyongyang.

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North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Center: Reprocessing Status Remains Unclear

Commercial satellite imagery of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center indicates that heightened activity at the Radiochemical Laboratory (RCL) since late February is continuing. Currently, there is no definitive evidence that the coal-fired Thermal (Steam) Plant, which supplies steam to the RCL, is operating for the purpose of a new campaign to extract plutonium from spent fuel (reprocessing). Plausible alternative explanations include that the North Koreans plan to process radioactive waste or conduct some type of operational maintenance.

There are unrelated signs of continued operations at the Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP), including installation of what could be some new support equipment for the centrifuge halls, possibly related to the existing cooling system, indicating ongoing uranium enrichment for either reactor fuel or weapons applications.

Operations are also underway to build new dams upstream of the reactor area in the Kuryong River to better control the cooling water supply, which is essential to safely restart the 5 MWe Reactor and bring the new Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR) online.

Radiochemical Laboratory

Imagery indicates the coal-fired Thermal Plant that supplies steam for the processes of the RCL has been operating since late February. Figure 2 shows the steam lines serving the steam distribution building and excess steam being vented from a small stack alongside the building. This does not necessarily mean that a reprocessing campaign is underway or about to get underway to extract plutonium. Steam is also required to treat radioactive wastes that the North Koreans may be processing from previous campaigns.

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Sinpho South Shipyard: Repositioning of the Submersible Test Barge

*Article updated on April 7, 2021.

Since its arrival at Sinpho South Shipyard in 2014, the submersible missile test stand barge, associated with the at-sea testing of the Pukguksong-1/KN-11, has not been observed outside of the secure boat basin for an event other than at-sea testing.

A series of three commercial satellite images taken on April 6, 2021 show the repositioning of the submersible test barge, first being towed by a single yard craft away from the secure boat basin at 02:09 UTC, then being docked behind a floating drydock berthed at the launch-way quay of the main construction hall by 06:40 UTC. No other unusual activity was observed at the adjacent quay or at the quay within the secure boat basin.

North Korea has given several indications that a new ballistic missile submarine may be rolled out in the near future. The new submarine is believed to be a modified ROMEO-class based on North Korean media reporting of Kim Jong Un’s site visit in July 2019 to the construction hall to inspect work on the new submarine.[1]

Sinpho’s secure boat basin has been the home for both the GORAE-class/SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine and the submersible test barge. The last image where the GORAE-class submarine was partially visible under the boat basin’s awning was on December 3, 2020. It is anticipated that any new submarine would be moved into the secure boat basin for its final fitting out before beginning sea trials. If this is the case, the GORAE-class submarine and submersible test barge would need to be moved to make room for the new submarine.

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To Spark Talks With North Korea, Biden Should Make the First Move

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) reportedly fired two tactical cruise missiles into the contested waters of the West Sea (Yellow Sea) on March 21 in a tit-for-tat response to the just-completed US-South Korea joint military exercises. Pyongyang followed up four days later by test-launching two “new-type tactical guided” ballistic missiles eastward into the East Sea (Sea of Japan).[1] The launches were a stark reminder of what is in store if US-DPRK nuclear diplomacy doesn’t resume soon.

The question is how to get to the negotiating table.

Both Biden and Kim Need Negotiations

In the current political environment, what are the prospects for diplomacy with Pyongyang? President Joseph Biden is pursuing a long-sought US goal of denuclearization of North Korea. Kim Jong Un, for his part, still seems committed to what his father and grandfather wanted ever since the late 1980s: to reduce the North’s dependence on China and hedge against its rise by transforming relations with the United States. The only way for either leader to get what he wants is to resume and sustain negotiations and see how far they can get.

If Kim needs talks, why has Pyongyang failed to respond to Washington’s attempt to resume them? It’s doubtful that he has backed away from his forebears’ goal. More likely, he is playing hard to get, waiting for a conclusive sign that Biden is moving away from what North Korea calls “US hostile policy.”

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Kim Jong Un’s Risky Economic Gambit

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s newly unveiled economic strategy aims to reconfigure the state’s relationship with private entrepreneurs, increase self-sufficiency and consolidate control over the economy. Since the government has already permitted the private sector to play an important role, however, these three objectives may end up being at cross purposes. As a consequence, the more the government squeezes down, the less it will likely be able to extract.

Money Problems

International economic sanctions have caused North Korea to lose between $4.6 and $8.2 billion, according to a March 2020 report by the United Nations (UN) Panel of Experts. Pyongyang’s ability to deflect pressure depends on whether it can compensate for these lost earnings. North Korea doesn’t publish fiscal accounts, so we don’t know for sure, but the country’s foreign exchange holdings may have shrunk by $1 billion per year since 2017, according to an estimate by the Bank of Korea.

North Korea imports much more than it exports. In 2019, the trade deficit topped $2.7 billion. Cyber attacks and sanctions evasion help to mitigate this (and aren’t captured in Bank of Korea’s figures), but they probably don’t close the gap. This urgent fiscal situation helps explain why a new five-year economic plan (stressing self-sufficiency) took center stage at the Eighth Party Congress in January this year.

However, there is a potential mismatch between the scope of planned projects and the funds available to service them. At the Party Congress, Kim Jong Un called for investment in industries such as chemical production and machine-building.[1] More ambitious objectives were rolled out during a recent plenary meeting, where Jo Yong Wan, secretary of the Central Committee, criticized officials for setting unacceptably low production goals in construction, electricity, consumer goods and fishing.[2]

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Ri Pyong Chol’s Fancy Footwork

(Source: KCTV via Martyn Williams)

In continuing its signals that it is keeping the door open for reengagement at some point with the US, North Korea downplayed its launch on March 25 of two short-range ballistic missiles, and responded to US President Joseph Biden’s remarks at his first press conference the next day with a relatively subdued statement. That approach appears intended to conform to the line advanced in Kim Jong Un’s work report to the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in January—shortly before Biden’s inauguration—which depicted the June 2018 Singapore US-DPRK Joint Statement as the basis for a “new” US-DPRK relationship.

Kim Jong Un did not attend the missile launch on March 25. Instead, the test was overseen by Ri Pyong Chol, a ranking party and military official who is essentially in charge of the North’s WMD programs and who also oversaw a test launch in March 2020 in lieu of Kim.[1]

On March 26, Rodong Sinmun, the party newspaper, carried its report on the missile launch on page two. However, page one of that same edition carried articles and pictures of Kim Jong Un talking to officials about city planning and transportation. The message for the domestic audience would seem to be that while the North was continuing its military buildup, Kim Jong Un himself was more focused on internal economic concerns.

At his press conference on March 26, President Biden was asked about the North’s missile launch. He said:

“…there will be responses—if they choose to escalate, we will respond accordingly.”

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Initial Analysis of North Korea’s March 25 SRBM Launches

(Source: KCTV via Martyn Williams)

North Korea announced the launch of a “new-type” of missile on March 25 that appears to be a variant of the previous KN-23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM).[1] North Korea almost certainly conducted the launches more for political than technical or operational reasons, probably to signal the new Biden administration that it should not be taken for granted and will continue to develop its missile capabilities, as well as in response to the US-ROK joint exercises currently underway. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) claim that the missile carried a 2,500-kg warhead to a 600-km range was likely a deliberate overstatement, presumably for political purposes.

The military significance of these launches is questionable. A 2,500-kg warhead is almost certainly not required for the new missile to carry a nuclear warhead. If it exists, the heavier warhead is more likely to have some tailored conventional warfighting purpose. Regardless, North Korea already unveiled in 2019 three new solid-propellant SRBMs that have all of the key attributes of the new missile, and that collectively add incrementally to the longstanding North Korean SRBM threat.

Information to Date

North Korea announced on March 25 that it had test fired two “newly-developed new-type tactical guided missiles” on that date.[2] Japan, South Korea and the US confirmed those launches. According to the North, the two launches were of a new-type solid-propellant missile “using the core technology” of an already-developed type, with an increased warhead weight of “2.5 tonnes” (presumably 2,500 kg). The DPRK released a few photos showing the ignition on a road-mobile launcher and the early ascent of an SRBM.[3]

According to the North, the “quite successful” test flights have “reconfirmed the irregular orbit characteristics of the low-altitude gliding and skipping flight mode which has already been applied to other guided missiles.”[4] Although North Korea suggested the missiles flew to a range of 600 km, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that they flew to a range of around 450 km with an altitude of 60 km; Japan stated the missiles reached 420 and 430 km. The North claimed the missiles “correctly hit” their target.[5]

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Reports of North Korea’s Return to a Command Economy Have Been Exaggerated

A popular refrain about the North Korean economy is that it is reverting to a command-and-control economy in the face of sanctions and pandemic isolation. An example is a Washington Post article from February, which claimed Kim Jong Un “turned his back on even modest economic and market reforms and reverted back to de facto Leninism, emphasizing central planning while trying to clamp down on the private entrepreneurial activity.” This claim reflects a misunderstanding of its current economic policy. Actually, Kim Jong Un’s economic reforms emphasizing markets and competition are continuing.

Kim’s major change in North Korea’s economic policy was to encourage competition. Previously, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) production unit was responsible for only executing the production targets required by the country. Through a constitutional amendment in 2019, North Korea abolished the “Taean [alternative] Work System,” the doctrine of economic management of business in the era of a command-based controlled economy, and instead adopted “the socialist corporate responsible management system.” The new system gave companies actual management rights, creating an environment in which substantial competition could occur.

In the last few years, competition has been greatly emphasized and institutionalized throughout North Korea’s economy, and has reached the point where it is increasingly the consumers, rather than the state, that carry out corporate evaluation. As North Korea institutionalizes and protects the pursuit of profits as the principle of economic activity, firms strive to actively reflect residents’ demands and manufacture products that “can be sold.”

Some North Korean companies have taken advantage of the authority to make decisions, from product selection to sales and distribution, and are much more conscious about price, quality and innovation in order to gain a competitive advantage over rivals that produce similar goods. These companies also participate in exhibitions and fairs to promote their products and advertise in the media.

According to an article in the Rodong Sinmun, which introduced the annual exhibition of people’s goods held in North Korea, some of the most popular products on display are sold out, but less recognized goods remain unsold. The volume of goods sold and the reputation among consumers are considered indicators of a company’s competitiveness.[1]

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Sinpho South Naval Shipyard: Drydock Movement Detected

Commercial satellite imagery of the Sinpho South Shipyard from March 24, 2021 indicates that the floating drydock, normally moored at a nearby pier, has recently been repositioned alongside the construction hall’s submarine-launch quay. Since this drydock has seldom been observed positioned next to the quay, its presence may indicate one of two developments. First, the new ballistic missile submarine, which has been under construction for several years, may be nearing completion or is ready to be rolled out and launched in the near future. Alternatively, the drydock may be there for rail alignment adjustment with those on the quay, as no submarine is known to have been launched from this location as of yet.

Figure 1. Movement of the floating drydock to alongside the submarine launch-quay.

Images © 2021 Planet Labs, Inc. cc-by-nc-sa 4.0. For media licensing options, please contact [email protected]

The launch of the new submarine is something that has been expected for the past couple of years for several reasons. These include:

Kim Jong Un visited the construction hall at Sinpho on July 23, 2019 to inspect a ROMEO-class submarine being modified to accommodate missile launch tubes.[1]The parts yard adjacent to the construction halls, where large parts had been observed during the construction process, has been empty since last summer. This suggests major structural work has been completed.

North Korea also revealed two larger Pukguksong submarine-launched ballistic missiles in military parades earlier this year–the Pukguksong-4 and Pukguksong-5. These would presumably require a larger vessel than the existing GORAE-class (SINPO-class) ballistic missile submarine to launch from.

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North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Center: Additional Activity at the Radiochemical Laboratory and Uranium Enrichment Plant

Commercial satellite imagery indicates continued signs of operation at the thermal plant that supplies steam to the Radiochemical Laboratory (RCL), where plutonium is recovered from spent reactor fuel. There also appears to be additional activity at one of the cooling units of the RCL, although its purpose is unclear. Despite these activities, it is still premature to suggest that spent fuel reprocessing is underway to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons or whether the site is being prepared to process radioactive waste.

There is also new activity at the Uranium Enrichment Plant (UEP) Complex, including smoke or vapor coming from the UO2 Production Process Building and the spread of a yellowish substance in front of the UEP. The drying of grain around the complex is common to see during harvest season, but given the time of year, the nature of this activity is unclear.

Radiochemical Laboratory

Figure 1 shows a robust smoke plume rising from the thermal plant. Imagery shows that the plant supplying steam to the RCL has been operating at least since February 25. At the RCL itself (Figure 2), there is faint vapor rising from a small cooling unit near a Chemical Support Building. The purpose of that cooling unit is unknown, but it is rarely seen to be in operation.

At the reactor complex (Figure 3), where only the 5 MWe Reactor is confirmed to be capable of operating, there are a couple of probable trucks, but such vehicles are common there.

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Pyongyang Prepares for Another Parade

Recent commercial satellite imagery of Pyongyang indicates rehearsals are underway at Kim Il Sung Square for what appears to be another upcoming parade. Imagery from March 6 shows thousands of people in the square forming the phrase “제10자대회,” which means “10th Congress.”

In February, North Korean state media reported the 10th Congress of the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League would be held in Pyongyang in early April.[1]

Although the Mirim Parade Training Ground in east Pyongyang was only partially captured on satellite imagery, it shows a handful of coaches parked outside of the April 25 Hotel, where visiting parade participants are usually housed. The parade ground’s practice area was outside of the image coverage, so it is difficult to tell at this point the size of the parade preparations.

The last major parade in the North Korean capital was the January 14 parade that marked the conclusion of the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Hundreds of troops and scores of vehicles were stationed at Mirim prior to the event.

April also sees North Korea’s most important holiday: the “Day of the Sun,” which commemorates the birthday of Kim Il Sung on April 15. In previous years, the day has sometimes been marked by mass parades.

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Sinuiju City: Big Plans, Little Progress

In mid-November 2018, Kim Jong Un inspected a vast diorama of redevelopment plans for Sinuiju City, a major city along the Sino-DPRK border. The model depicted a larger, more modern Sinuiju with plenty of high-rise buildings, grand avenues, a sports district and lots of industrial space.

But more than two years later, little has changed in one of North Korea’s most important border cities. So, what happened?

Figure 1. Kim Jong Un examines a model of the Sinuiju redevelopment master plan in Pyongyang in November 2018.

(Source: KCNA)

Feedback on the Master Plan

When Kim inspected the plan, he had plenty of feedback for the designers. State media reported several paragraphs of Kim’s “wisdom and expertise” in urban planning and said he set a deadline of “a few months” for the designers to resubmit the master plan to reflect his instructions.[1]

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Remembering Michael Elleman

Like many of our colleagues, we were shocked and deeply saddened when we heard about the passing of our good friend and colleague, Michael Elleman, on February 20, 2021. With so much hardship and loss over the past year, this news has hit hard for those of us at 38 North.

Our collaboration with Mike started in 2014, when he participated in our working group to assess North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and how they might progress over the next five years. It turned out to be great timing because shortly after that, North Korea started ramping up its missile testing, which over the next few years felt like a weekly affair (especially Friday nights). At the height of North Korea’s missile tests, Mike spent many odd hours working with 38 North staff to assess the key takeaways of each launch, no matter how small the development or how much disregard the North Koreans showed for our schedules here in Washington.

Mike’s credentials spoke for themselves. Just look at Mark Fitzpatrick’s warm tribute. His two decades at Lockheed Martin Research and Development Laboratories, his research work at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Arms Control, his on-the-ground experience managing inspections of Iraq’s missile infrastructure under the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, his comprehensive threat reduction work at Booz Allen Hamilton and of course, his impressive body of research and leadership at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mike was a true expert who infused our work with informed, practical and thoughtful analysis on North Korea’s missile program development.

“Mike brought a sound technology and engineering basis to open-source analysis of North Korea missile issues that all too often was characterized by hyperbole and worst-case analysis, all too often performed by people with limited technical expertise,” recalls Vann Van Diepen, former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation and frequent 38 North contributor. “At the same time, Mike was open to differing analyses (including mine on occasion) and always conducted himself in an open and friendly manner that promoted coming out with better answers to hard questions.”

As others have noted, Mike possessed the rare combination of superior technical knowledge and the humility to be willing to explain his work with enthusiasm for discussion and debate. While he was firm in his convictions, he was fully prepared to discuss them with his peers and respectfully listen to their arguments and assessments, knowing that limited photographic and video footage of missile systems and tests can leave much room for interpretation.

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