North Korea likely is maintaining uranium-enrichment facilities beyond the one revealed to a U.S. nuclear weapons expert last year, U.S. intelligence officials told a Senate panel Feb. 16.
In testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the scale and level of development of the enrichment facility at North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex suggest that the country probably has pursued uranium-enrichment capabilities for some time.
“If so, there is a clear prospect that [North Korea] has built other uranium-enrichment-related facilities in its territory, including likely [research and development] and centrifuge-fabrication facilities and other enrichment facilities,” he added.
Last November, Pyongyang showed former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker a newly constructed enrichment plant containing about 2,000 centrifuges after announcing that it intended to build and fuel a small light-water nuclear power reactor. (See ACT, December 2010.)
Such a plant can be used to enrich uranium to the low levels commonly used to fuel nuclear power plants or the high levels used in nuclear weapons. Many enrichment plants, including those in development by North Korea and Iran, use gas centrifuges to separate uranium isotopes, increasing the concentration of the fissile isotope uranium-235.
The U.S. intelligence assessment appears consistent with a recent UN panel report that reportedly concluded that North Korea must have additional enrichment facilities. Last December, the UN Security Council tasked a panel of experts responsible for assessing the implementation of UN sanctions against North Korea with examining Hecker’s claims regarding North Korea’s enrichment efforts. International inspectors have not had access to North Korean nuclear facilities since May 2009. North Korea ejected International Atomic Energy Agency monitors when it withdrew from multilateral denuclearization talks that same month. Diplomatic sources said that China blocked the council’s formal adoption and release of the report, which included recommendations for additional sanctions on North Korea. One diplomat said that China prefers to address North Korea’s enrichment program in multilateral negotiations.
The United States long has suspected North Korea of developing an enrichment program to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for nuclear weapons, but intelligence assessments appear to have varied over the scale of the North Korean effort. A 1994 U.S.-North Korean denuclearization agreement collapsed in 2002 after U.S. officials accused Pyongyang of violating that accord by developing a uranium-enrichment capability, a claim North Korea rejected.
For years, Pyongyang denied pursuing uranium-enrichment capabilities despite widespread suspicions and public claims by Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that North Korea received gas centrifuge technology from a nuclear smuggling network run by Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. North Korea first publicly admitted to an enrichment program in June 2009, after leaving multilateral disarmament negotiations. (See ACT, July/August 2009.)
Japan and South Korea last month declared that North Korea’s enrichment program violates Security Council resolutions as well as North Korea’s previous denuclearization commitments. “We agreed that the international community’s concerns over uranium enrichment should be taken up at an appropriate forum like the UN Security Council,” Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said during a Feb. 16 joint press conference in Tokyo with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan.
After speaking with Chinese officials in Beijing, however, Wi Sung-lac, South Korean special representative for Korean peninsula peace and security affairs, told reporters in Seoul Feb. 11, “China does not agree with taking the issue to the UN Security Council.”
Beijing has called for a resumption of the six-party talks to address the North Korean nuclear issue. The talks involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
The United States, South Korea, and Japan maintain that before those denuclearization talks can resume, Pyongyang must work to improve relations with Seoul following two military incidents last year and that it must demonstrate a willingness to abide by its prior denuclearization obligations.
North-South relations deteriorated sharply last year following the torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March and a North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island in November. Although a multilateral investigation concluded that North Korea carried out the torpedo attack, Pyongyang has denied it. With regard to the November incident, Pyongyang says it fired artillery in response to South Korean military exercises. Seoul has insisted that North Korea take responsibility for both actions.
For the first time since those two incidents, North and South Korea held military talks at the truce village of Panmunjom Feb. 8-9, but those discussions ended without agreement on an agenda for future, higher-level talks.