2008: Extraordinary Access in Yongbyon to Witness Disablement

Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program


Dates: February 13-16, 2008
Yongbyon visit: February 14, 2008

Man in white protective hazmat suit leans over a disabled piece of machinery wrapped in plastic
This visit came about only six months after the 2007 trip. The North Korean side stressed that the principal reason for that visit was to verify the seriousness of their disablement actions at the Yongbyon Nuclear Center.

Stanford delegation included Siegfried S. Hecker, CISAC, Stanford University, W. Keith Luse, senior staffer to Senator Richard Lugar, U.S. Senate, and Joel Wit, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies U.S.–Korea Institute and former U.S. State Department official.

In his trip report, Hecker wrote:

“Our visit leads me to conclude that the DPRK leadership has made the decision to permanently shut down plutonium production if the United States and the other four parties live up to their Oct. 3, 2007 commitments. However, they have retained a hedge to be able to restart the facilities if the agreement falls through.”

S. Hecker, Report of Visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK), Pyongyang and the Nuclear Center at Yongbyon, Feb. 12 – 16, 2008.

Notes of Discussions with Dr. Ri Hong Sop

2008: Disablement verification visit to Yongbyon

In the beginning of 2008, the IAEA and the United States had a constant presence in Yongbyon. The access afforded the U.S. technical team, the IAEA inspectors, and Hecker’s Stanford delegation underscored that having feet on the ground was crucial for getting critical insights into Yongbyon’s operations and the North’s nuclear program. During the visit to the Yongbyon nuclear complex on February 14, 2008, the Stanford delegation received “extraordinary” permission to use their own cameras inside the complex. The photographs below document in detail the disablement actions implemented by the time of the visit.

Taken through the car windshield, a city street with a few vehicles and many pedestrians crossing the road on a cold winter morning

A busy morning in Pyongyang – on way to Yongbyon.

A dirt road ahead with a cart on one side and a bicyclist on the other

Off the highway on the way to Yongbyon.

Administrative building with mountains in the back

Yongbyon city.

A street scene, some pedestrians walking along the road

Driving through the city of Yongbyon on the way to the nuclear research site.

Taken from inside the car, a guard booth and station on the right with a view to a straight free lined valley ahead behind the closed gate

First guard gate entry into Yongbyon nuclear village.

Concrete-block building made of several cube shapes with just a few windows

5 MWe reactor in Yongbyon.

A reactor building chamber with a high metal standing cabinet at the right wall that contains a radiation detector

5 MWe Reactor. Winch room in reactor building. Los Alamos radiation monitoring detector checks the passage of every fuel rod being discharged from core.

Rusty metal pipes running along the perimeter of a building raised high on concrete piles

Secondary cooling pipes at 5 MWe reactor.

Disconnected rusted pipes lying on the ground

Disconnected secondary cooling pipes lying next to 5 MWe reactor building.

A reverted funnel-shaped cooling tower

Outside photograph of cooling tower – the symbol of nuclear power plants.

An open foundation of the cooling tower with concrete blocks strewn around in concentric pattern and other pieces of removed piping

Empty inner structures that contained elaborate systems for operation of the cooling tower.

Two men in winter coats walking in the foundation of the cooling tower

Hecker (left) and Joel Wit at cooling tower.

Inside view of the cooling tower with bare walls stripped of former equipment

Evidence of disablement in reactor cooling tower. Equipment has been removed.

Two men donning white anti-contamination suits and wearing yellow plastic booties

A new dress code in Yongbyon in 2008. Wit (left) and Keith Luse in American supplied anti-contamination dress.

Man standing in front of a bare wall in a white anti-contamination suit

Hecker in anti-C suit prepared to enter the Reprocessing Facility in Yongbyon.

Industrial space with large window running the length of the wall and some steel structures and beams

Reprocessing building (Radiochemical Laboratory).

Man in anti-C suit with video camera hanging on his neck shooting a video of a room with some metal parts wrapped in plastic

Reprocessing plant storage building. Storage of motors & documentation of the delegation visit.

Motors painted mustard color wrapped in transparent plastic stored on wooden pallets

Reprocessing plant storage building. Storage of motors.

Some metal structures in bare walled space

-1 level of Reprocessing Plant. Base plates for two fuel transfer cranes.

Rusted metal structure adjacent to a bare wall

-1 level of Reprocessing Plant. Base for removed actuator for isolation door.

Metal structures and an orifice in the concrete floor

-1 level of Reprocessing Plant. Base plate and orifice for fuel shearing and slitting.

Group of people in anti-c suits talking under a bare electric bulb in a vast industrial space

Siegfried Hecker (fourth from right) in front of area in which the drive mechanisms for the chopper of fuel cladding and the slitter for the fuel cladding were removed.

Man donning protective gloves and already in full anti-c suit standing outside with other people adjusting their suits nearby

Hecker dressing up to enter Fuel Fabrication Facility.

Heavy tanks and metal equipment in plastic for storage

Building 4 of Fuel Fabrication Facility. Removal and storage of equipment.

Two men in protective white suits and respirators with heaps of plastic bags and staked bricks in the back

Two DPRK nuclear workers in front of insulating bricks and sand/mortar removed from the seven reduction furnaces.

Heaped heavy plastic bags with sand and stocked bricks in the back

Stored sand/mortar (in bags) and refractory bricks.

Metal tanks and other equipment pieces wrapped in plastic for storage

Storage of removed equipment.

Massive metal tanks with round pothole openings in a row

Storage of removed equipment.

Man in protective suit video recording among tanks wrapped in plastic

Disabled uranium metal production equipment as video documented during the delegation visit by Yongbyon technicians.

Man in white protective suit and respirator leaning to another man shown from the back in conversation

Hecker at Fuel Fabrication Facility.

Massive metal equipment wrapped in clear plastic for storage

Fuel fabrication facility. Stored machining lathes.

Man in protective suit leaning over a massive lathe wrapped in plastic

Hecker inspecting disabled and stored machine shop equipment in the Fuel Fabrication Facility. As discovered in a subsequent visit, this building was repurposed to house a modern centrifuge facility.

Man in protective suit walking with his back to the camera along a hall with empty pits on the right

Building 1, Fuel fabrication facility. Uranium metal conversion furnaces removed.

A row of empty pits in the concrete floor with light streaming from large windows

Building 1, Fuel fabrication facility. Uranium metal conversion furnaces removed.

A large hollowed out pit

Disabled furnaces.

Stacked metal bands and other round parts

Disabled furnace components.

Round metal parts in clear plastic stored on the floor

Storage of removed equipment.

People walking outside in anticontamination suits.

People walking outside in anticontamination suits.

Alley way with newly planted trees and sculpture cranes leading to an industrial rectangular building

Fuel Fabrication Facility.

Five or more upright steel columns with metal stairs leading upward in the back and some tangled hoses and wires

Site of removed casting furnace, vacuum system and controls for casting uranium metal fuel rods.

Two tall blue tanks on wheeled platforms with hoses attached and many barrels stored on the floor

Disablement actions.

Group of men in white anti-C suits and respirators standing inside an industrial building

Hecker (center, third from left) and North Korean hosts inspecting disablement in Fuel Fabrication Facility.

Empty space with seven metal hoods hanging down from the high ceiling on long connector pipes

Fuel Fabrication Facility. Machining hall with lathes removed and ventilation hoods still in place.

Okra-colored tiled floor with round bordered holes with vast spaces underneath

Pits from which dissolver tanks for uranium ore concentrate have been removed (front end of the fuel fabrication process).

Large metal tanks with piping and controls

Dissolver tanks.

Massive curved pipes used for ventilation


5 or more row of full plastic bags of yellow, pink, and gray color stored on a concrete floor in a large room

Stored uranium oxide (UO3).

Five men and a woman in winter jackets posing for a photo on a crisp sunny day

Hecker (center) with American technical team at Yongbyon.

People standing in semi-circle outside in conversation

Hecker (4th from left) and Wit (far left) with American technical team at Yongbyon.

Two men talking at a lunch table laid with tableware and condiments

Wit (left) and Hecker at lunch in Yongbyon Guesthouse.

Man sitting back in a dinner chair with his arms folded

Luse at lunch in Yongbyon Guesthouse.

Two men sitting in low armchairs next to each other and looking in the camera

Director Ri Hong Sop and Hecker at outbrief.

Two Korean men in suits and ties in low armchairs; one looking in his phone, the other leaning forward with a smile

Director Ri Hong Sop (right) and safeguards section head Li Yong Ho at outbrief in the Yongbyon Guesthouse.

Five men posing for the photo

Wit, Hecker and Luse with Yongbyon hosts, Safeguards Section Head Li Yong Ho (left) and Director Ri Hong Sop (center).

Two men in armchairs sitting next to each other

Director Ri Hong Sop and Hecker.

At the time of the visit, Dr. Ri Hong Sop stepped down as Director of the Yongbyon Nuclear Center but continued in leading roles in the nuclear program. Hecker and the members of the Stanford delegations had a detailed discussion of the disablement issues and possible redirection of nuclear workers in the future.

Two men in arm chairs leaning closer to one another for photo

Hecker with interpreter.

A dirt bank and a river with curved river bed with hills in the back

Kuryong River flowing through Yongbyon.

Afterglow after sun has set in a mountain saddle

Sunset on the way back to Pyongyang after a day-long visit to Yongbyon.

During the remainder of the visit, the Stanford team met with officials from education and health ministries to probe opportunities for collaboration and continued informal discussions with their Foreign Ministry hosts. There were visits to museums and meetings at the School of Foreign Languages, University of Foreign Studies, and University of Music.

Two towers of Koryo hotel soaring to the sky

High-rise Koryo Hotel centrally located in Pyongyang.

Entrance to a store with sign in English "Korea Stamp" and a sign in Korean language

A stamp store around the corner from the hotel.

Vertical displays with collections of stamps

Inside the store, a large selection of stamps commemorating DPRK’s historical, cultural, and technological accomplishments.

Two men and a woman at the far end seated at a large polished surface desk with their notes at a meeting

Dr. Choe Dok Hun (center), Deputy Director General of International Department, Ministry of Education, a Ministry officer and interpreter meeting with the Stanford team.

Hecker in lively conversation with Korean officials facing each other in a small circle

At the meeting, Hecker talked about improving the spectrum of learning, research and application – and how this could be accomplished through exchange visits.

Three Americans and three Korean officials posing for a friendly photo

After the meeting that focused on possible scientific and educational exchange. Luse (left), Wit, Dr. Choe, Hecker, Ms. Ri Hye Ryon, and interpreter.

Group of people posing for photo

Meeting at MFA hosted by Ambassador Ri Gun (third from left). Hwang, Luse, Ri Gun, Hecker, Ms. Choi, Wit.

Man standing in front of a class with everyone wearing warm clothes inside

School of Foreign Languages. Hecker addressing students in English class.

Students in their warm coats seated at desks in a cold classroom and listening attentively to someone outside of the picture. Three men standing at the window looking on.

The students in English class were very inquisitive and friendly.

Girl in a winter coat seated at desk with more students seated further in a row with headphones and notebooks in front of them

Hecker noted that the students spoke remarkably good American English.

Man leaning down to the student desk to see into the notebook of a student

We got a warm reception in a bitterly cold classroom.

Two Americans flanked by two Koreans all wearing winter coats posing for photo in front of a painting of DPRK leaders

Wit (center left ) and Hecker (center right) with Foreign Languages School hosts.

Classroom with warmly dressed students seated in pairs at desks and four men standing in the back of the room

At Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.

Classroom with warmly dressed students seated in pairs at desks. Visitors who look cold seated on chairs in the back of the room

It was similarly cold inside the University of Foreign Studies classroom.

Three Americans flanked by two Koreans all wearing winter coats posing for photo in front of a painting of DPRK leaders

Stanford team (Luse, left, Wit, and Hecker) with Korean hosts at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies.

Group of people walking along a building on a cold sunny day. In the center of the group, Hecker shakes hands to say goodbye to Korean host.

Stanford team accompanied by North Korean guides on the way to next visit.

Façade of a modern building with sculptured figure of a young man holding some notes at the entrance

The façade of the University of Music and Dance, another visit stop.

Young woman playing Korean traditional board instrument, kayageum

Student playing the kayageum, Korean traditional board stringed instrument.

Woman playing the traditional changgu (junggu) drum.

The kayageum is often accompanied by the changgu (junggu) drum.

Girl playing a forte piano on stage

Piano class in University of Music.

View of scene with a woman in blue concert dress singing to the orchestra

Performance in the concert hall of the University of Music and Dance.

Two men in earnest conversation across a laid dinner table

Hecker (left) and Ri Gun engaged in discussion over dinner.

Two men posing for photo with the Pyongyang main square at the background

Luse (left) and Wit at the Pyongyang central square.

Large group of people posing for a photo

Lunch meeting with diplomats from several foreign embassies at the home of Swedish Ambassador.

A museum guide (young woman) standing in front of a poster narrating the life of Kim Jong Il

Guide narrating the life of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il.

Two men in winter coats posing for photo with a young Korean female museum guide at the exit of a museum

Hecker (left) and Luse posing for photo with the guide who masterfully took the Stanford visitors through the times at Art Museum.

An American and a Korean posing for a photo seated next to each other

Luse (left) and Ambassador Ri Gun at dinner to mark the conclusion of the visit.

An American (Hecker) in red tie and a Korean seated next to each other and turning to pose for photo

Hecker (left) and Ambassador Ri Gun wrapping up the last of the three discussions held during the visit.

Air Koryo aircraft on the tarmac with the stairs ready for boarding

Air Koryo flight to Beijing ready for boarding.

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