N. Korea's uranium enrichment program likely to be substantial
News Date: 17th October 2011
North Korea's uranium enrichment program may be far greater in scope than the facility it revealed last year, given the time and technology that went into building the plant, experts said Monday.
North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment facility in its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon last November, sparking concerns it could be used as a second way to build atomic bombs. The Pyongyang regime had long been suspected of seeking a uranium-based nuclear weapons program, but it was the first time it revealed the plant to a visiting American nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker.
"We know that perhaps a year and a half before that, there was nothing in that building," James Kelly, distinguished senior fellow of the Pacific Forum, Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on the sidelines of a private conference in Seoul.
"All of a sudden, here is this excellent quality, large-scale uranium enrichment program ... so it leaves us to wonder how large are the facilities that we don't know about?"
Kelly served as assistant U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2001 to 2005, during which he dealt with North Korea's uranium enrichment issue. North Korea has also been operating a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.
"They've been working on this for a very long time. They've put a lot of money into the program," he said. "Minimizing North Koreans' technical ability is a very foolish undertaking. My guess is that they've got a rather substantial uranium enrichment program."
Evans Revere, former president of The Korea Society and an ex-Asian expert at the U.S. State Department, said North Korea could even be running additional uranium enrichment facilities elsewhere.
"If you look at the level of technology that exists in Yongbyon in the uranium enrichment facility there, it is hard to believe that that facility was built that quickly and made operational in purely that environment. It had to have had support from elsewhere," he said in a separate interview with Yonhap News Agency in Seoul.
"If you were the North Korean leadership, would you want to limit your capability to just that one facility there, knowing that the United States is going to want to negotiate the freezing and elimination of that facility? Probably not."
On North Korea's ability to build uranium-based nuclear weapons, Revere said the regime appears to be making rapid progress.
"Listening to what people are saying in Seoul and Washington and elsewhere ... the capability is growing. They've had the technology for a number of years as we now know," he said.
Kelly, however, was more skeptical, indicating that North Korea may not have the necessary technology to convert uranium into weapons-grade material.
"That's a different set of technologies that probably are a little bit more narrow," he said. "Enriching uranium -- it's just a matter of degree, whether you do it at a low level or a high level. That's a more available and understood technology than the notion of weapons and miniaturizing the weapons and getting them just the right size."