North Korea stunned U.S. scientists on a tour of its latest nuclear plant this month, showcasing technological advances that highlight the failure of sanctions to force Kim Jong Il’s regime back to disarmament talks.
"The control room was astonishingly modern," Stanford University professor Siegfried S. Hecker wrote in his Nov. 20 report of the visit eight days earlier to the main reactor site at Yongbyon. "We saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges," he said, a reference to the high- speed spinning devices that enrich uranium.
The findings from the tour, conducted on the same day President Barack Obama attended a global summit 300 kilometers (188 miles) away in Seoul, prompted him to send the U.S. envoy on North Korea to Asia to coordinate a response. While the uranium program is “another in a series of provocative moves,” it doesn’t pose a crisis, Stephen Bosworth said today in Seoul.
"The U.S. is now at the crossroads of engagement and pressure, and sanctions are clearly not working," said Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. The Obama approach to North Korea "has done nothing but bolster North Korea’s nuclear capabilities," he said.
North Korea’s reported progress in developing its nuclear energy industry casts doubt on the effectiveness of tougher United Nations sanctions imposed for its second nuclear test in May 2009. The U.S. is pushing for a global effort to choke off funds to the regime in a bid to squeeze military-related industries and force Kim back to six-party disarmament talks that also include China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
Leaders from those countries also attended the Seoul summit of Group of 20 nations. Two days earlier, at a speech to mark Veterans Day, Obama contrasted the advance of his South Korean hosts since the 1950-53 war on the peninsula, contrasting it to North Korea’s “utter darkness” that can be seen from Space.
“North Korea must have decided it was time to show their revamped nuclear capabilities to pique the U.S.,” said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “The program seems more aimed at maximizing its leverage at negotiations with the U.S.”
North Korea has backpedaled on steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program since the six-party forum last convened in December 2008. In April 2009, the regime said it would restore its main reactor for making weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon, which had been disabled under a February 2007 accord.
It denied having a separate uranium-enrichment program, the second means of creating a nuclear device, until September 2009 when it told the UN Security Council it was “weaponizing” plutonium and had almost succeeded in highly enriching uranium.
Satellite images of the Yongbyon site taken on Nov. 4 by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security showed North Korea was also building a light-water reactor. Hecker, who visited the site with colleagues John W. Lewis and Robert Carlin, confirmed the construction of an “experimental” 25-30 megawatt reactor.
“I would not at all accept that our policy toward North Korea is a failure,” U.S. envoy Bosworth said today in Seoul before heading to Tokyo. “This is a very difficult problem that we have been struggling to deal with for almost 20 years,” he said, adding that the U.S. was not surprised by the report.
North Korea has 2,000 centrifuges already installed and running at the Yongbyon facility, and making low-enriched uranium, Hecker said he was told on what was his fourth visit to the facility since January 2004. Hecker headed the state-run Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997.
The North Korean facility, which he described as “stunning,” appeared to be designed for civilian nuclear power, although it could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium for bombs, he wrote on the website of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.
Multiple centrifuges are spun at high speeds to increase the concentration of uranium that can be used in nuclear plants or, in a richer form, in bombs.
“How the United States and its partners respond to these developments may help to shape whether Pyongyang will rely more on the bomb or begin a shift toward nuclear electricity,” Hecker wrote in his report. Sanctions are “a dead end, particularly given the advances made in their nuclear program.”
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