Uranium Enrichment 'Long Suspected'

But North Korea's complex program to enrich uranium comes as a surprise to experts.
2010-11-23
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Map showing  site of newly revealed uranium enrichment plant in North Korea.
Map showing site of newly revealed uranium enrichment plant in North Korea.
RFA

A covert uranium-enriching facility in North Korea, which carried out a deadly artillery attack Tuesday on its southern neighbor, confirms long-held suspicions of Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities, experts say.

But the complex nature of the facility,  revealed to a U.S. scientist last week,  comes as a surprise, the experts told a forum in Washington late Monday,  hours before North Korea bombarded a South Korean island, killing two marines in one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbor since the Korean War ended in 1953.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Victor Cha—a senior adviser and chair of the Korea program at CSIS—described the facility as “much further advanced and much farther along than anything that any expert who has been following North Korea had suspected they were capable of doing.”

North Korean officials revealed the facility, located at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, last week to Dr. Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Hecker reported that the plant contained “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges designed to enrich uranium, a key material used in the production of nuclear weapons.

Under international pressure, North Korea had shuttered an earlier program to enrich plutonium, another material used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. A covert, parallel North Korean program to enrich uranium had long been suspected.

Activities were watched

The plant’s existence “confirms our worst suspicions about North Korea’s desire to pursue enriched uranium as a path in terms of their nuclear capabilities,” said Cha,  a former Director for Asian Affairs in the White House’s National Security Council.

U.S. diplomat Sung Kim, also speaking at CSIS, confirmed that the United States has monitored North Korea’s uranium-enrichment activities “for some time.”

“We should be worried, but I should point out that this not a new issue,” said Kim, special U.S. envoy to now-stalled six-nation talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program.

“In fact, we’ve raised our concerns and suspicions directly with the North Koreans on a number of occasions—both bilaterally and in the context of the six-party talks,” said Kim.

The United States and the other parties to the talks—China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—should resist pressure to renew negotiations with the North, and should instead “focus on what [the North has] said and what they have already committed to,” said Kim.

“And what they have committed to is complete denuclearization.”

'Acknowledgment' sought

North Korea’s newly revealed nuclear venture shows that the reclusive state seeks acknowledgment as a nuclear weapons state and that it intends to “continue leveraging the onward proliferation threat to enjoy perpetual concessions from the United States,” said  Michael Green,  a CSIS Asia expert, and William Tobey, an expert with Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

They said the revelation points not to a U.S. intelligence lapse but to a policy failure.

“Over the past decade intelligence analysts have consistently predicted North Korea's path to nuclear weapons and the increasing evidence of Pyongyang's outward proliferation activities," they said in a commentary published in the Wall Street Journal.

"The failure has been on the side of policy makers and pundits who denigrated the analysis, ignored it, or clung desperately to the fallacy that absent maximum possible pressure, North Korea would abide by a denuclearization deal."

Kim noted that North Korea has said it seeks improved relations with the United States.

“Well, frankly, they cannot achieve full denuclearization, or have better relations with us, if they continue to pursue nuclear programs,” Kim said.

Reported in Washington by Richard Finney.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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