North Korea is still expanding its nuke facilities, say experts

WASHINGTON — North Korea continues to make improvements to a major nuclear facility, raising questions about President Donald Trump's claim that Kim Jong Un has agreed to disarm, independent experts tell NBC News.

New satellite images made public by 38north, a web site devoted to analyzing North Korea, show that "improvements to the infrastructure at North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center are continuing at a rapid pace," three 38north analysts concluded in a paper.

The analysts cautioned that the continued work at the Yongbyon facility "should not be seen as having any relationship to North Korea's pledge to denuclearize. The North's nuclear cadre can be expected to proceed with business as usual until specific orders are issued from Pyongyang."

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Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea
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Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea
YONGBYON, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 29, 2013: This is a satellite image of the 5 MWe Reactor at Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea collected on March 29, 2013. (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 25, 2018: Figure 11. Groups of personnel observed throughout the complex. Mandatory credit for all images: DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24, 2015: Figure 5. A facility near Tohwa-ri. This DigitalGlobe image is from the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory complex and was featured in the article, Suspicious Activity at Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory; Progress Towards Completing the Experimental Light Water Reactor, published on 38 North on April 4, 2016. Photo date: May 24, 2015 Mandatory credit: Image � 2016 DigitalGlobe/38 North.
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - JAN 14, 2011: Figure 6A. Construction of administration buildings from 2011-2015. This DigitalGlobe image is from the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory complex and was featured in the article, Suspicious Activity at Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory; Progress Towards Completing the Experimental Light Water Reactor, published on 38 North on April 4, 2016. Photo date: January 14, 2011. Mandatory credit: Image � 2016 DigitalGlobe/38 North.
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - OCTOBER 27, 2016: Figure 6A. Centrifuge Building and support buildings at the Uranium Enrichment Complex appear to be in operation. Date: October 27, 2016. Mandatory credit for all images: DigitalGlobe/38 North via Getty Images
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - JAN 14, 2011: Figure 7A. Construction of livestock halls from 2011-2015. This DigitalGlobe image is from the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory complex and was featured in the article, Suspicious Activity at Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory; Progress Towards Completing the Experimental Light Water Reactor, published on 38 North on April 4, 2016. Photo date: January 14, 2011. Mandatory credit: Image � 2016 DigitalGlobe/38 North.
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24, 2015: Figure 7B. Construction of livestock halls from 2011-2015. This DigitalGlobe image is from the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory complex and was featured in the article, Suspicious Activity at Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory; Progress Towards Completing the Experimental Light Water Reactor, published on 38 North on April 4, 2016. Photo date: May 24, 2015. Mandatory credit: Image � 2016 DigitalGlobe/38 North.
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - DECEMBER 2, 2013: ISIS analysis Digital Globe imagery showing continued construction work at a site located between the fuel fabrication complex and the Radiochemical Laboratory, or plutonium separation plant at North Koreas Yongbyon site on December 2, 2013. (Photo DigitalGlobe/ISIS via Getty Images).
YONGBYON NUCLEAR FACILITY, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24, 2015: Figure 7. Administration buildings. This DigitalGlobe image is from the Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory complex and was featured in the article, Suspicious Activity at Yongbyon Radiochemical Laboratory; Progress Towards Completing the Experimental Light Water Reactor, published on 38 North on April 4, 2016. Photo date: May 24, 2015. Mandatory credit: Image � 2016 DigitalGlobe/38 North.
YONGBYON, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 27, 2013: This is a satellite image of the 5 MWe Reactor at Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea collected on March 27, 2013. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38North via Getty Images)
YONGBYON, NORTH KOREA - NOVEMBER 13, 2012: This is a satellite image of the 5 MWe Reactor at Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea collected on November 13, 2012. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38North via Getty Images)
YONGBYON, NORTH KOREA - MARCH 27, 2013: This is a satellite image of the 5 MWe Reactor at Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea collected on March 27, 2013. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38North via Getty Images)
YONGBYON, NORTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 7, 2013: This is a satellite image of the 5 MWe Reactor at Yongbyon Nuclear Complex in North Korea collected on February 7, 2013. (Photo DigitalGlobe/38North via Getty Images)
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However, other experts argue that ongoing work on the site of a reactor that is producing fuel for nuclear weapons shows that North Korea has no intention of disarming.

"North Korea is continuing to expand its facilities to produce nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. "We have never had a deal. The North Koreans never offered to give up their nuclear weapons. Never. Not once."

James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added, "If they were serious about unilaterally disarming, of course they would have stopped work at Yongbyon. There is a huge gulf between what the administration apparently thinks North Korea is going to do and what they intend to do, and that's exceptionally dangerous."

He added, "The Trump administration is lying to itself and to the American people."

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment. Spokesmen for the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA declined to comment.

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North Korea dismantles nuclear test site
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North Korea dismantles nuclear test site
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, taken on May 24, North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site explosion on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by Handout/News1 via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, the entrance to a tunnel rigged with explosives is shown at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, a North Korean soldier stands at the entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, taken on May 24, North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site explosion on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by Handout/News1 via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, the debris is seen after demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, North Korean soldiers stand at the entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, taken on May 24, North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site explosion on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by Handout/News1 via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, taken on May 24, North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site explosion on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by Handout/News1 via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, a North Korean soldier stands at the entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, a North Korean soldier stands at the entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, taken on May 24, North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site explosion on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, the entrance to a tunnel rigged with explosives is shown at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, members of the media make their way towards North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, the debris is seen after a demolition 'ceremony' at the North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, members of the media stand at the entrance to a tunnel prior to a demolition ceremony at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is demolished on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, a North Korean soldier stands at the entrance to a tunnel at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, a North Korean soldier inspects debris before members of the foreign media following demolition of the Punggye-ri nuclear site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, the Punggye-ri nuclear test site is demolished on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, a North Korean soldier explains the demolition process of the Punggye-ri nuclear test facility to the media at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
PUNGGYE-RI, NORTH KOREA - MAY 24: (SOUTH KOREA OUT) In this handout image provided by the News1-Dong-A Ilbo, North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear test site is demolished on May 24, 2018 in Punggye-ri, North Korea. North Korea dismantled their nuclear testing facility at Punggye-ri in front of the international media. (Photo by News1-Dong-A Ilbo via Getty Images)
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Allison Puccioni, an imagery analyst at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and an expert on the Yongbyon facility, said it was unrealistic at this point to expect North Korea to have stopped working on the reactor complex.

"Just because they blew up one or two tunnels at a nuclear test site doesn't mean they are doing to stop working on a reactor that they are telling everybody that they are using for electricity," she said.

Wit agreed.

"What you have is a commitment to denuclearize — we don't have the deal yet, we just have a general commitment. So I don't find it surprising at all" that work at Yongbyon continues.

But Wit added that he thought Trump had "oversold" the idea that North Korea would soon denuclearize.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality is "exceptionally dangerous," Acton said, because "sooner or later…I think Trump is going to feel he has egg on his face. I worry deeply he'll start lashing out like he did last summer."

After their Singapore summit, Trump and Kim issued a joint statement agreeing to "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

The document, less than 400 words, offered almost no details about how or when that would happen.

Asked a few days later whether North Korea's denuclearization would be "verifiable and irreversible" — given that those words are not in the declaration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded that he found the question "insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous. I just have to be honest with you. It's a game and one ought not play games with serious matters like this."

He added, "The modalities are beginning to develop. There'll be a great deal of work to do. It's — there's a long way to go, there's much to think about, but don't say silly things."

At a June 20 rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Trump defended his decision to meet with Kim, bragging that he extracted a major concession from the dictator: "Sentence one says 'a total denuclearization of North Korea,'" Trump said. "There will be denuclearization. So that's the real story."

It's not clear from the satellite imagery to what extent the Yongbyon reactor is operating, the 38north report said, but it concluded that uranium enrichment appears to be in progress. Joel Wit, who negotiated a 1994 deal with North Korea and founded 38north, said the facility has become less important to North Korea's program, and currently produces enough nuclear material to build two to three bombs every two years.

In 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down the site, and in 2008 the regime blew up the main cooling tower. But after talks collapsed, North Korea in 2009 resumed the reprocessing of spent fuel to recover plutonium at the site.

In May, weeks before Trump met Kim in Singapore, North Korea appeared to destroy three nuclear tunnels, observation buildings, a metal foundry and living quarters at its Punggye-ri nuclear test. But experts said the site could easily be rebuilt.

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