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North Korea Asserts Gains in Uranium Enrichment

The cooling tower at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex is demolished in June 2008 as part of a since-abandoned denuclearization effort. Pyongyang on Wednesday said it had achieved substantial progress in enriching uranium and building a new atomic reactor at the Yongbyon site (AP Photo/Gao Haorong). The cooling tower at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex is demolished in June 2008 as part of a since-abandoned denuclearization effort. Pyongyang on Wednesday said it had achieved substantial progress in enriching uranium and building a new atomic reactor at the Yongbyon site (AP Photo/Gao Haorong).

North Korea on Wednesday claimed it had achieved significant gains in enrichment of uranium and construction of an atomic reactor, ratcheting up concerns the Stalinist state is pursuing another avenue for producing a credible nuclear deterrent, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, Nov. 29).

A statement by an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry official said work on the light-water reactor and the enrichment of uranium to low-levels was "progressing apace" The ministry asserted Pyongyang had an indisputable right to generate atomic power for peaceful purposes and that "neither concession nor compromise should be allowed." The statement was carried by state-controlled media.

The North started work on the experimental reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear site in 2010. Though a light-water reactor would seem to be intended for generating atomic energy, it would provide the nation a cover for enriching uranium, which when processed to high levels can fuel nuclear warheads.

The regime's nuclear-weapon program has previously depended on plutonium produced at Yongbyon.

The United States and other nations have said the North's enrichment of uranium is a breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In South Korea on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists that "we look to North Korea to take concrete steps to promote peace and stability and denuclearization." She did not specifically discuss the North's declaration.

Pyongyang this year has repeatedly voiced its desire to resume a frozen aid-for-denuclearization process that the North abandoned in 2009. The six-nation talks involve China, Japan, both Koreas, Russia and the United States. Negotiations were last held in December 2008.

Seoul and Washington in recent months have each engaged in two rounds of bilateral talks with Pyongyang over conditions for resuming the six-nation talks. The two allies' demands include that the North halt its uranium enrichment before denuclearization negotiations are relaunched.

Beijing, the North's principal supporter, did not have immediate comment for Pyongyang's most recent assertions but called instead for a quick relaunch to the six-nation negotiations.

"Under the current circumstances, we hope all the relevant parties will make joint efforts to resume the six-party talks as soon as possible. All the relevant issues of concern can be discussed within the framework of the six-party talks," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry statement blasted Washington and friendly governments for "groundlessly" objecting to the country's civilian atomic efforts. They are "deliberately laying a stumbling block in the way of settling the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula," the ministry said (Associated Press/Washington Post, Nov. 30).

Nuclear-weapon specialists are concerned the experimental reactor could offer Pyongyang a new way to reprocess spent nuclear fuel into plutonium for warheads, the New York Times reported.

During previous nuclear disarmament negotiations, the North in 2008 seemingly gave up its ability to generate processed plutonium when it destroyed the cooling plant tower for an existing reactor. Pyongyang is understood to retain enough processed plutonium to fuel about six warheads.

Though Pyongyang announced its plans two years ago to construct a sophisticated light-water reactor that would run on domestically enriched uranium, international experts were skeptical the North could pull off the feat. Observers were taken aback one year ago when U.S. nuclear experts were granted a tour of the previously undeclared uranium enrichment plant.

Recent satellite photographs showed notable headway has been made at the reactor site since last November's unveiling.

The North vowed Wednesday it could "convince the world of the peaceful nature of those activities through the International Atomic Energy Agency." Inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog have been barred from the country since 2009.

South Korean and U.S. officials are reluctant to return to the six-party talks without proof of North Korea's intentions to irreversibly end its nuclear weapons work. Pyongyang has used negotiations in the past to extract economic aid without taking lasting nuclear disarmament actions. For this reason, Washington and Seoul have set down preconditions for any future talks.

Ex-IAEA head Hans Blix in Seoul on Tuesday said he did not believe those "preconditions are helpful at all." He pointed to Iran, where multinational talks to resolve concerns about the nation's nuclear development have been at an impasse for years over a Western demand that Tehran halt its uranium work before international sanctions are relaxed and other contentious issues addressed (Choe Sang-hun, New York Times, Nov. 30).

Meanwhile, a German news report said Pyongyang has provided Iran and Syria with a high-grade steel that is employed to improve missiles and produce uranium enrichment centrifuges, Haaretz reported.

Both the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Nuclear Suppliers Group keep tabs on the sale of maraging steel, which is not allowed to be exported to Iran under international sanctions. Tehran has been known for some time to be trying to acquire maraging steel, which would allow it to produce better uranium at a more rapid pace. The United States and allies suspect Iran's enrichment efforts are aimed at giving the nation a nuclear-weapon capability, an assertion vehemently disputed by Tehran.

The Die Weit newspaper reported that the export of the steel fell under a broader deal for the North to provide know-how to the Syrian government, which is constructing a new missile production plant close to Homs. Separate reports said the facility is financed in part by Tehran and is anticipated to go online in no more than a year-and-a-half.

The steel would substantially enhance the capacities of Syria's Scud ballistic missiles and the destructiveness of the weapons.

Multiple U.N. resolutions prohibit Pyongyang from selling weapons technology (Yossi Melman, Haaretz, Nov. 28).

Separately, South Korean naval vessels held a live-artillery exercises on Tuesday in a display of maritime power aimed at deterring future North Korean attacks, Agence France-Presse reported.

The maritime exercise was aimed at assessing preparedness to detect potential covert assays by North Korean submarines and ships. It occurred slightly more than a year after North Korea's shelling of the South's Yeonpyeong Island, an attack that killed four people.

"Today's drill shows our strong will not to tolerate further provocations by North Korea," a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said to AFP.

The live-fire exercise was one component of maneuvers involving some 20 frigates, warships and patrol vessels in addition to helicopters and other aircraft, the spokesman said (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Nov. 29).

Elsewhere, ex-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans on Tuesday said he believed the North should be asked to participate in next March's Global Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

"North Korea should be invited and will be welcomed," said Evans, who is advising South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on the nuclear summit.

"The door should always be opened to them, though their participation is unlikely as the North will not want to be seen to be under the international pressure," Evans told Yonhap (Oh Seok-min, Yonhap News Agency, Nov. 29).

Blix, who is also on an expert panel advising Lee, said North Korea's nuclear weapons program would not be a topic at the summit, which is principally aimed at building on the work of a 2010 gathering in Washington on securing the world's vulnerable nuclear material stockpiles.

"The issue of nonproliferation won't come up," the Wall Street Journal quoted Blix as saying.

Blix suggested that in order to persuade the North to accept denuclearization, Seoul might have to give up its own goals of beginning to domestically enrich uranium.

"I think they (North Korea) will insist on parity there," Blix said (Evan Ramstad, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 29).

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