Solving the North Korean Nuclear Puzzle: Chapter 3

Chapter 3—An Overhead Tour: The Yongbyon Nuclear Site

by David Albright and Corey Hinderstein

Much of the controversy about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has centered on activities at the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, located about 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang. This chapter contains high-resolution commerical satellite images of the Yongbyon site, which has hundreds of buildings and thousands of employees. It also includes a few photos taken on the ground. These photos are from a videotape that North Korea gave to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in May 1992. Other than this video, ground photos of the nuclear center are scarce.

North Korea sharply limits the number of visitors to this high-security site. Although IAEA inspectors and U.S. officials have visited several of the facilities at Yongbyon, their access has been strictly limited and closely monitored. In addition, the IAEA has not been allowed to visit many of the buildings. Members of the public and the international media have never visited the nuclear center.

Therefore, satellite images currently provide the public with the only way to view Yongbyon. Although the images rarely provide direct information about what is going on inside the buildings, they can indicate the purpose of several facilities. These satellite images also provide the public with a view of the Yongbyon site that was previously reserved for governments with access to intelligence satellites. Many nuclear facilities are identified in the photos. Using images taken at different times, the steady growth of the site can be tracked from the mid-1960s to the present.

The satellite photos used here were taken at four different times—1967, 1970, 1989, and 2000. The 2000 photo has a resolution of about one meter, although this resolution is noticeable only in the close-ups. It was purchased from Space Imaging and was acquired by the Ikonos satellite that was launched in September 1999. The 1989 image is from the Russian KVR-1000 satellite and has a resolution of about two meters. The 1967 and 1970 photos are declassified U.S. intelligence satellite images taken by the Corona program. They have a resolution of about five meters.

List of Figures
Page 1Figure III.1—A map of Yongbyon area as it appeared in 1995.
Page 2 Figure III.2—An overview of the Yongbyon nuclear site as it appeared in January 1989.Figure III.3—The site in early 2000.
Page 3 Figure III.4—Image showing a close-up of the original nuclear site.
Page 4 Figure III.5—A satellite photo showing the older section of the nuclear site as it appeared in March 1970.
Page 5 Figure III.6—A satellite photo showing the original section of the nuclear site as it appeared in December 1967.
Page 6 Figure III.7—A close up showing the high-explosive (HE) test site.
Page 7Figure III.8—A close-up of the 5 MWe reactor and associated buildings from 1989.
Page 8Figure III.9—The February 2000 Ikonos image of the 5 MWe reactor area.
Page 9 Figure III.10—Ground photo of the 5 MWe reactor.Figure III.11—IAEA and North Korean officials peering into the spent fuel pond for the 5 MWe reactor.
Page 10 Figure III.12—The top of the core of the 5 MWe reactor showing the fuel channels.Figure III.13—The fuel loading and unloading machine located above the fuel channels of the 5 MWe reactor.
Page 11 Figure III.14—The 50 MWe reactor (under construction) in 1989.
Page 12 Figure III.15—A February 2000 Ikonos image shows the same area as figure III.14.
Page 13 Figure III.16—A close-up of the January 1989 image showing two suspect waste sites.
Page 14 Figure III.17—A close-up of the February 2000 image showing the location of the two waste sites.
Page 15 Figure III.18—A 1989 image of the 190-meter long plutonium separation building.
Page 16 Figure III.19—A 2000 close-up of the reprocessing complex.
Page 17 Figure III.20—A schematic that identifies the main buildings and waste tanks at the Radiochemical Laboratory complex.
Page 18 Figures III.21, III.22, and III.23—Ground photos of the Radiochemical Laboratory.
Page 19 Figure III.24—This 2000 image shows the fuel-fabrication complex and a coal-fired, steam-generating plant.
Page 20 Figure III.25—A close up of the 2000 Ikonos image showing the fuel-fabrication complex.
Page 21 Figure III.26—A schematic showing the main buildings at the fuel-fabrication complex.
Page 22 Figure III.27—The fuel-fabrication complex, showing the front gate to the complex.
Page 23 Figure III.28—A 2000 image of an area at the Yongbyon site involved in construction support.