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North Korean Uranium Enrichment Revelation Causes Consternation

  • RFE/RL

U.S. special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth speaks to reporters upon his arrival at the airport in Tokyo.

U.S. special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth speaks to reporters upon his arrival at the airport in Tokyo.

Japan has called it totally unacceptable. South Korea has expressed "grave concern." These were the first reactions to the news that North Korea has built in secret a new facility for enriching uranium -- a step that could enhance Pyongyang's ability to produce nuclear bombs.

Prominent American scientist Siegfried Hecker disclosed on November 20 that he had been invited to tour the new facility at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos nuclear laboratory, said what he saw was "stunning."

"Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges, all neatly aligned and plumbed below us," Hecker said, and described the control room as "astonishingly modern."

Officials showing him around said there were in fact 2,000 centrifuges and that the plant, which began construction in 2008, was already working. Hecker said he could not confirm those claims.

The officials also said the enrichment plant was meant to provide fuel for a light-water nuclear reactor that will supply electricity for civilian use.

In reaction, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral, Admiral Mike Mullen, described North Korea as a "very dangerous" country, and said the new uranium-enrichment facility could be readily converted to produce highly enriched fuel for nuclear weapons.

North Korea's existing atomic-bomb program has relied on plutonium rather than enriched uranium. The country has exploded two nuclear devices in recent years and has an active long-range missile development program.

Why Revelations Now?

The broader U.S. reaction to the Hecker disclosure has been generally measured. President Barack Obama's special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said the "disappointing announcement" was the latest in a "series of provocative moves" by the North.

"That being said, this is not a crisis. We're not surprised by this," Bosworth said in Seoul following talks with South Korean officials.

Pyongyang had previously signaled its intention to build a light-water reactor and supply it with domestically produced fuel.

Bosworth dismissed suggestions that the North's evident determination to press ahead with dual-use nuclear technology represents a failure of U.S. policy to persuade Pyongyang to denuclearize.

"I think [it's] fundamental that we deal with this in close coordination with major countries of the region and that's what we're trying to do," Bosworth said.

"But no, I would not at all accept that our policy toward North Korea is a failure. This is a very difficult problem that we're been struggling to deal with for almost 20 years."

He said there was no point resuming the suspended international six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program -- which foresee aid for the economically-depressed North if it gives up its nuclear ambitions -- if that meant talking just for the sake of talking.

He said it was a basic requirement that the North approach any discussions with "seriousness and willingness to actually take hard decisions."

It's not clear why North Korea revealed its formerly secret uranium-enrichment plant to the world now.

Analysts say that the revelation could be an attempt by Pyongyang to force a resumption of the stalled six-party talks.

Or it could be designed to strengthen the North Korean government as it looks to transfer power from ailing leader Kim Jong Il to his young, unproven son.

written by Breffni O'Rourke, based on agency reports