Recent satellite images of North Korea’s main nuclear processing site show that the isolated nation may be renewing efforts to develop its nuclear arsenal. These images come mere months after February’s failed meeting in Hanoi.
The images, taken by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), show five specialized railcars near North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site. The report produced by CSIS states that “in the past, these specialized railcars appear to have been associated with the movement of radioactive material or reprocessing campaigns. The current activity, along with their configurations, does not rule out their possible involvement in such activity, either before or after a reprocessing campaign.” If this proves to be the case, it would further highlight the failure of February’s summit between North Korea and the United States.
The North Korean regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons technology has been underway for years. While it started under Kim Il-sung, the regime did not have many successes until the mid-2000s. The first successful nuclear test was in 2006 and was followed by another in 2009. Under the leadership of Kim Jong-un, however, North Korea has ramped up its nuclear testing; between 2011 and 2019, the regime reportedly detonated 3 nuclear devices, one of these being a thermonuclear weapon (otherwise known as a hydrogen bomb). While North Korea has not performed any missile or nuclear tests since 2017, the nation has continued to produce fissile material.
There have been multiple attempts by the Trump Administration to reach out to the North Korean regime. The most recent summit, held in Hanoi early this year, reportedly collapsed after President Trump handed Kim Jong-un a document that demanded North Korea transfer all its nuclear materials to the United States. In return, the United States would begin to lift some of the sanctions imposed on the nation. While the United States has made its position on the matter clear, North Korea still refuses to denuclearize.
The pursuit of nuclear weapons technology by any nation poses a major threat to global peace and stability. The North Korean regime’s pursuit comes at a time of renewed tension between the isolated state and its main rival, the United States. The regime has threatened the United States with nuclear attack multiple times in the previous decade. There have been hopes that the summits being pursued by the Trump Administration will lead to a thaw in relations and the gradual denuclearization of North Korea. However, so far these summits have appeared to be failures.
While North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is only estimated to be between 20 and 60 warheads (compared with the thousands possessed by the United States or Russia), the regime’s status as a rogue state and its hostility to many of its neighbours raises fears that the isolated nation would use its nuclear arsenal for a first-strike on its regional rivals or the United States. Such a strike, if successful, would lead to widespread death and destruction, and could trigger a nuclear response. Such a situation is, of course, the worst-case scenario, and it is hoped that the current diplomatic route can provide a peaceful way forward.