Questions Surround NK Uranium Program

Paul Kerr

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill told a U.S. Institute for Peace audience Sept. 28 that North Korea should provide a declaration of its nuclear programs, including a suspected gas centrifuge-based uranium-enrichment program, during the next round of six-party talks likely to take place in November.

But achieving this outcome will almost certainly be difficult, especially with respect to Pyongyang’s enrichment program. North Korea continues publicly to deny having such a program, although some of its officials have suggested a willingness to discuss the matter with the United States. (See ACT, September 2005.) Moreover, limited U.S. intelligence about North Korea’s nuclear programs may render it difficult for the United States to resolve any ambiguities in a North Korean declaration.

Gas centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride by spinning it at very high speeds to increase the concentration of the relevant fissile isotope. Highly enriched uranium can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Hill said that the other participants in the talks—China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—agree that North Korea has a centrifuge program but disagree on how far it has progressed. Indeed, most public official assessments, as well as knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials interviewed by Arms Control Today, agree that Pyongyang has imported a significant number of centrifuge components. But there appears to be considerable doubt as to whether the country has an operating enrichment facility.

A former Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 26 that North Korea has probably imported enough components for 3,000-5,000 centrifuges and may have acquired enough for 6,000-7,000. A June Asahi Shimbun report that Pyongyang acquired materials from Russia for possible use in about 2,600 centrifuges appears to partly support this assessment.

The former U.S. official, however, cautioned that the number of completed centrifuges in North Korea’s possession is unknown, adding that Pyongyang has most of the key components but may lack certain essential parts. Expressing a bit more skepticism regarding North Korea’s centrifuge holdings, a congressional source familiar with the issue told Arms Control Today in February that, according to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang probably does not have certain critical items for its program and is apparently making little progress in acquiring them. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf acknowledged during several recent press interviews that the illicit proliferation network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan had provided North Korea with 12-20 complete centrifuges, as well as centrifuge designs and components. North Korea also may have obtained uranium hexafluoride from the network, Musharraf said. The United States has said for some time that Khan’s network aided the North Korean program.

Publicly available intelligence assessments regarding a possible North Korean enrichment facility are inconclusive. For example, the CIA reported in November 2002 that North Korea was “constructing a centrifuge facility” capable of producing enough fissile material for “two or more nuclear weapons per year” as soon as “mid-decade.” But subsequent agency reports to Congress covering North Korea’s nuclear programs in 2002 became increasingly vague, saying only that North Korea had the “goal” of constructing such a facility. A similar 2003 assessment said nothing about the program.

By contrast, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense provided a more definitive assessment Sept. 23, stating that its northern neighbor has an enrichment program but has not yet started constructing a centrifuge facility.

Providing yet another view, a knowledgeable former congressional staff member told Arms Control Today Sept. 27 that the Bush administration has never presented any “credible evidence” to relevant congressional staff that North Korea has ever sought to advance its enrichment efforts beyond a research and development program.

The question of whether North Korea has a facility capable of producing uranium hexafluoride could also prove difficult to resolve. The public evidence that Pyongyang possesses such a facility is thin, and the former State Department official described the administration’s intelligence on the matter as “pretty sketchy.” Knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials have articulated differing assessments on the matter both in published accounts and interviews with Arms Control Today.

U.S. officials have recently disclosed an intelligence assessment that North Korea supplied Libya with uranium hexafluoride via the Khan network. (See ACT, May 2005.) But U.S. and International Atomic Energy Agency sources have expressed skepticism that Pyongyang supplied the material.