Military, Nuclear Weapons

Yongbyon Update: February Movement of Radioactive Material? Pt. II

Key Findings

  • Satellite imagery acquired on February 14, 2020 shows that the three specialized railcars identified in Beyond Parallel’s report from February 11, 2020 have been moved from west of the Radiochemistry Laboratory to the southern rail yard adjacent to the reported isotope/tritium production facility.
  • A fourth railcar is present in the latest imagery in addition to the three railcars that were captured in imagery from February 10, 2020.   
  • These railcars have been associated with the movement of radioactive material in the past.
  • If past practice is any indication, all four cars will leave the Yongbyon facility sometime during the next seven days.
  • It is unclear whether this activity is a carefully calibrated move by North Korea to maneuver international diplomatic tensions or related to North Korean statements during the past four weeks declaring that they will reveal a “Christmas gift” or a “new strategic weapon.”
  • These findings underscore that the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex remains active and therefore would need to be part of any potential “phase one” deal involving a verifiable freeze on the program.
Three specialized railcars that were present west of the Radiochemistry Laboratory as of February 10, 2020 are now seen present near the reported isotope/tritium production facility with the addition of a fourth railcar as of February 14, 2020. (Copyright © 2020 by Planet)

A satellite image of North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility acquired on February 14, 2020 shows that the three specialized railcars identified in our report from February 11, 2020 have been moved to the southern railyard adjacent to the reported isotope/tritium production facility. Here they are joined by a fourth specialized railcar.1 As noted in our last report these railcars have been associated with the movement of radioactive material in the past.

The four specialized railcars appear to consist of one approximately 13-meter-long depressed-center railcar with four casks, two approximately 10-meter-long flatcars with four casks and an approximately 10-meter-long railcar that appears to be a either a flatcar or a flatcar carrying what may be a shipping container, large crate or similar sized load.2 This is consistent with our reports from April 18, 2019, November 14, 2019 and February 11, 2020. If past practice is any indication all four cars will leave the Yongbyon facility sometime during the next seven days.

It is unknown whether this activity observed over the past four days is a carefully calibrated move by North Korea to maneuver international diplomatic tensions related to North Korean statements during the past four weeks declaring that they will reveal a “Christmas gift” or a “new strategic weapon,”3 the actual movement of radioactive materials (itself suggestive of continued highly enriched uranium production), or a combination of the above.

References

Show 3 Footnotes
  1. The fourth specialized railcar may have been present at the southern railyard on February 11, 2020. However, the imagery is not clear enough to make a firm determination.
  2. These lengths should be viewed as approximate since resolution of the imagery is insufficient to more accurate measurements.

    Depressed-center railcars are typically used for moving large or heavy loads and are not common on North Korea’s rail system. It should be noted that the flatcar with a shipping crate railcar also bears some resemblance to an old transfer caboose, however, a determination of its exact configuration is not possible at present due to limitations in resolution.

  3. For example, Song Jung-a, “Kim Jong Un vows to unveil ‘new strategic weapon’,” Financial Times, January 1, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/3b02ec66-2c5c-11ea-bc77-65e4aa615551 and Timothy W. Martin, “North Korean Leader’s Warning of New Weapon Signals Tougher Slog for Talks,” Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/kim-says-north-korea-will-unveil-a-new-strategic-weapon-11577832679.