For the first time, North Korea made its uranium enrichment program a matter of written record Tuesday with the proud claim in the country’s leading newspaper of a modern facility that is already operational.
That revelation in the Workers’ Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun marks another step toward North Korea’s emergence as a nuclear power. The North's “modern uranium enrichment plan” was still under construction but was already “equipped with several thousand centrifuges,” according to the newspaper. In recent years Pyongyang has already exploded two nuclear devices with plutonium at their core.
What the international community knew first
North Korea was first revealed to have a uranium enrichment program in 2002, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States for Pyongyang to give up nuclear development in return for construction of twin light-water nuclear-energy reactors.
The North denied the existence of the program until earlier this year amid the breakdown of talks with the conservative government of South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, whose inauguration in February 2008 ended a decade of efforts at North-South reconciliation.
North Korean officials earlier this month gave an American team led by nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker a tour of the plant at the same complex north of Pyongyang where a five-megawatt reactor has produced plutonium for what intelligence analysts estimate is a dozen nuclear devices.
The article in the Rodong Sinmun, the first official revelation in the North Korean state media, appeared to have been timed to coincide with US-led naval exercises concluding Wednesday in the Yellow Sea. It does not clarify, however, whether the new reactor is to produce electrical energy or to fabricate the explosive core of nuclear warheads.
“Nuclear energy development projects will become more active for peaceful purpose in the future,” it says, but that wording leaves open the possibility that the immediate goal is to produce warheads more powerful than those tested underground in October 2006 and May 2009.
A South Korean Foreign Ministry official, Lim Jung-taek, calls North Korea’s boast of building the reactor “quite worrisome” – and “a violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions after each of the tests.
North Koreans are 'preparing their cards'
As for when North Korea is likely to test an explosive with highly enriched uranium, Mr. Lim says, “We don’t know what surprise event they are preparing.” The North Koreans “are preparing their cards.”
North Korea publicized its reactor one week after North Korean gunners fired 170 artillery rounds into a small island in the Yellow Sea eight miles from the North Korean coastline, killing two marines and two civilians.
US and South Korean warships, led by the US aircraft carrier George Washington, on Sunday opened four days of what a South Korean defense official calls “high-intensity” drills 50 miles south of the island.
US jet fighters Tuesday were taking off from the George Washington, said the official, intercepting mock aircraft aided by radar from US and South Korean destroyers and aircraft. Ships simulated interdiction of vessels in “search and seizure” looking for contraband cargo.
US and South Korean forces staged the war games, which end tomorrow, to the din of North Korean threats of “all-out war,” “merciless punishment,” and “unforeseen consequences.”
Intelligence analysts believe that over the past decade North Korea has shipped missiles to Iran and exchanged nuclear components and technology with Iran as well as Pakistan by air via China, despite UN sanction resolutions.
Documents released this week by WikiLeaks show the US informing China of aircraft stopping in Beijing carrying missiles from North Korea to Iran while North Korea scours world markets for components.
South Korea, however, appears reluctant to make the link between Iran and North Korea, which former US President George W. Bush in 2002 labeled as part an “axis of evil." South Korea imports 10 percent of its oil from Iran while South Korean companies export cars and high-tech products to Iran – and have invested heavily in projects there.
“If we are sure Iran goes down the path of nuclear weapons, that will be destabilizing,” says Lee Chung-min, dean of the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University, who also serves as ambassador for international security. “If there is incontrovertible evidence that North Korea is assisting Iran’s nuclear program, that will be of critical concern.”