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North Korea Reveals New Uranium Enrichment Site
North Korean officials earlier this month unveiled for an outsider a large new uranium enrichment plant they had built covertly and quickly, raising questions of whether the aspiring nuclear power its readying to increase its arsenal with an even more-dangerous weapon, the New York Times reported on Saturday (see GSN, Nov. 19).
Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker told the Times he was "stunned" by the complexities of the uranium facility at the North's Yongbyon complex, where he viewed "hundreds and hundreds" of centrifuges that were recently put in place inside a building that had once been used to produce nuclear fuel. The centrifuges were operated from "an ultramodern control room," he said.
Pyongyang asserted it had 2,000 operating centrifuges, according to Hecker.
The facility was created sometime after International Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. inspectors were kicked out of the North in April 2009. The rapid pace of its establishment in the isolated and poor nation indicates it had outside assistance and managed to skirt U.N. Security Council sanctions intended to slow Pyongyang's nuclear development.
Hecker and other U.S. experts who traveled to the North this month earlier reported seeing construction of a new light-water nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. However, news of the new uranium facility was only publicly shared after the Obama administration had been briefed last week.
Obama officials hope to use the latest news to underline that the Stalinist state continues to advance its nuclear work and is flouting Security Council sanctions. U.S. envoys have been dispatched to China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- the other participants in the moribund six-nation negotiations on North Korean denuclearization -- for talks on the latest development. The White House wants to convince Beijing -- Pyongyang's top economic benefactor and main foreign defender -- that it needs to do more to press the Kim Jong Il government.
North Korea is believed to possess enough plutonium for about six weapons. It only formally acknowledged uranium enrichment efforts last year.
Going public with the plant could be an effort to draw further concessions from the United States or to demonstrate the North's standing as a nuclear-armed nation, administration officials said. The point also could be to develop a weapon with a more powerful punch than plutonium provides, though such a bomb would be particularly difficult and time-consuming to manufacture.
Hecker said he was not permitted to substantiate North Korean officials' assertions that the plant had begun enriching uranium at low levels.
The nuclear weapons expert said he is suspicious Pyongyang would carry out its pledge to build a light-water reactor to run on the enriched uranium. "There are reasons to question whether that's true," Hecker said.
Pyongyang has said the uranium produced by the facility would be used as fuel in the light-water reactor to produce electrical power. U.S. officials, however, believe the uranium plant would be used to produce fissile material for weapons use. As Pyongyang prohibits international monitoring of its nuclear program, it is not possible to know how much uranium is enriched at the plant, nor to what levels (David Sanger, New York Times I, Nov. 20).
The North's purported assistance to Syria in building a secret nuclear reactor -- decimated in a 2007 Israeli airstrike -- taken with the latest news is causing fears to grow that the Stalinist regime is becoming the chief instigator of worldwide nuclear proliferation, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.
"It's a travesty and tragedy that we didn't stop this program when we had the opportunity," said David Asher, who worked on antiproliferation efforts in the previous U.S. administration. "My fear is that just as Iran's demands for enriched uranium for a bomb are expanding, North Korea may be in the position to begin supplying."
In a report on his visit to the North, Hecker assessed that the North's uranium plant could enrich about 2 tons of LEU material annually or about 88 pounds of HEU material -- almost the amount needed to fuel one warhead.
Informed sources said President Obama directly broached worries about the North's uranium enrichment efforts in a November 11 conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao in South Korea.
Taken with North Korea's current ICBM and nuclear work, the uranium facility is a high-level national security threat for the Untied States, one source said. Information was not shared on Hu's reaction to Obama's remarks, but it "got his attention," according to one source.
A U.S. intelligence official said yesterday, "American intelligence agencies have known about North Korea's uranium-enrichment activities for years. It's simply incorrect to suggest otherwise."
U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Bosworth set out this weekend to visit China, Japan and South Korea to attempt to build a consensus on responding firmly to Pyongyang. "This is not a crisis," Bosworth said.
Washington needs to know what part outside parties could have had in assisting in the creation of the uranium facility, Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright said.
U.S. spy agency officials think Pakistan might have given the North the blueprints for the P-2 centrifuge - a more sophisticated device that has better uranium enrichment capabilities than the P-1 centrifuge.
Albright thinks nations such as Iran could have assisted Pyongyang in acquiring the more advanced computer networks used at the Yongbyon plant.
"Iran and North Korea appear in some cases to use similar illicit procurement networks," Albright said (Solomon/Entous, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21).
Obama administration defense officials said yesterday that news of the uranium plant validates their long-held beliefs that Pyongyang wants a second path to building nuclear weapons, the Times reported. The North's stockpile of fissile material is currently comprised of processed plutonium.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he did not believe Pyongyang's claim that the uranium plant was for the production of atomic power plant fuel. "I don't credit that at all," he said in Bolivia.
The uranium plant could allow Pyongyang to fuel "a number" of new weapons, Gates said.
For the last 10 years, Washington has thought North Korea wished to "head in the direction of additional nuclear weapons," U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen told ABC in an interview yesterday. The new uranium plant backs up this belief, he said.
Obama officials sought to underline that Hecker's news was not new to them and that the United States had been monitoring for 10 years apparent attempts by North Korea to acquire specific machinery for centrifuges.
"Washington has been studying North Korea's aspirations to produce enriched uranium for some time," Bosworth said in South Korea today.
Mullen did not directly respond to a question on whether U.S. spy officials had been aware that the once-gutted Yongbyon fuel production building had been refurbished to house the uranium enrichment operation.
Albright and ISIS colleague Paul Brannan wrote in an online posting yesterday that it was feasible that North Korea had "built another plant previously and either transferred it to Yongbyon or simply buil[t] another one based on its experience of bringing the first, perhaps smaller, one into operation."
North Korea might also have received assistance from Iran as the centrifuges at the Yongbyon site seem not unlike those used at the Natanz uranium enrichment site in the Gulf state. Pyongyang, however, characterized them as being better quality systems than those operated by Iran (Sanger/Berger, New York Times II, Nov. 21).
South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan played down the uranium plant as "nothing new," the Associated Press reported.
Bosworth said Washington is not ruling out "the possibility of further engagement with North Korea," through frameworks like the six-nation talks. He cautioned, though, that "I do not believe in engagement just for the sake of engagement or talking just for the sake of talking."
"This is a very difficult problem that we have been struggling to deal with for almost 20 years," the U.S. diplomat said. "They are a difficult interlocutor ... but we're not throwing our policy away" (Kelly Olsen, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Nov. 22).
After meeting with Bosworth today, South Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Wi Sung-lac, departed for Beijing for already-scheduled meetings with his Chinese counterpart, the Times reported.
"He is probably going to check with the Chinese government to see if they got stabbed in the back," an informed insider said (Mark McDonald, New York Times III, Nov. 22).
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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.
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