SEOUL — While the region’s attention has remained focused on whether the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, can consolidate his power, his country has been making significant progress in the construction of a reactor widely seen as a cover for making more nuclear weapons, analysts said Tuesday, citing satellite imagery of the building site.
The experimental light-water reactor under construction — and North Korea’s efforts to enrich uranium — could provide the country with a means to increase its nuclear arsenal significantly, experts have warned.
After its negotiations with the United States collapsed in 2009, North Korea announced that it would build an indigenously designed light-water reactor as a pilot project for a nuclear power industry, and that it would also enrich uranium for reactor fuel. The government unveiled in 2010 a centrifuge plant in Yongbyon, its main nuclear complex north of the capital, Pyongyang. But analysts say North Korea may also use the plant to produce highly enriched uranium, a type of fuel for nuclear bombs.
The reactor under construction in Yongbyon could be designed to allow engineers to turn its spent fuel into plutonium, another type of fuel for nuclear weapons.
Allison Puccioni, a satellite image analyst at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, said Tuesday that North Korea had completed a major step in the construction by placing a 69-foot dome on the reactor building. She based her conclusion on images taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite on Aug. 6.
‘‘The emplacement of the dome is a significant development, although it may take several more years for the facility to be completed and brought into full operation,’’ she said in an e-mail.
North Korea has reprocessed spent fuel from a five-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon to extract plutonium and test-detonated two nuclear devices.