By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 9:32 PM
North Korea appears to be moving forward with a program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, a development that would enhance its ability to produce bombs and sell its nuclear weapons technology abroad, according to a report to be released Friday.
The report, "Taking Stock: North Korea's Uranium Enrichment Program" by the Institute for Science and International Security, comes as a senior South Korean official warned that North Korea's nuclear program is "evolving even now at a very fast pace." The official, Kim Tae-hyo, deputy national security adviser to President Lee Myung-bak, told the South Korean JoongAng Daily on Thursday that "North Korea is currently operating all its nuclear programs, including highly-enriched uranium processing," adding that the danger from the North's nuclear program is now at an "alarming" level.
Earlier this week, ISIS and GlobalSecurity.org reported that North Korea had also resumed construction activity at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, where the country produced plutonium. It was unclear exactly what North Korea was doing there, both organizations said, but the activity took place near a nuclear cooling tower that North Korea destroyed in 2008 as part of a deal with the United States and other countries.
U.S. intelligence analysts first concluded in July 2002 that North Korea had embarked on a large-scale program to produce highly enriched uranium for use in weapons, with a key piece of evidence being North Korea's purchase of 150 tons of aluminum tubes from Russia in June 2002. The George W. Bush administration's accusation that Pyongyang had a clandestine program led to the collapse of a 1994 agreement that resulted in a freezing of activity at the Yongbyon reactor.
After the 1994 agreement fell apart, the North Koreans were able to reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods - which had been held in a cooling pond and monitored by U.N. inspectors - to acquire enough plutonium for as many as 10 weapons. A uranium program would have required Pyongyang to build a facility with thousands of centrifuges to obtain the highly enriched uranium needed for a weapon.
The new ISIS report, based on information gleaned from intelligence agencies, government officials and media reports, concludes that North Korea "has moved beyond laboratory-scale work" and is now capable of building a "pilot plant" of centrifuges to enrich uranium. David Albright, a co-author of the report, said that based on data about North Korea's purchases of equipment around the world, he believes the North could possess 500 to 1,000 centrifuges. To make enough enriched uranium for a bomb, experts generally agree that North Korea would need 3,000.
U.S. officials did not respond to requests for comment. But the presence of an enhanced uranium-enrichment program would complicate any new moves to negotiate with North Korea. In the past, U.S. negotiators have focused first on the plutonium program and left the uranium-enrichment activities for later.
"But this would indicate that uranium must be included in the engagement no matter what," Albright said.
He said that North Korea had several options as it produced more highly enriched uranium. A supply of the material would allow North Korea to build a supply of fission weapons to go with its plutonium-based weapons. But it also could combine the two to make a more powerful weapon or create a thermonuclear device.
"A growing concern," the report added, "is that North Korea would provide centrifuge equipment, facilities, and technical know-how or even HEU [ highly enriched uranium] to other countries or groups." North Korea is a known weapons proliferator. It sold a nuclear reactor to Syria, which was destroyed by an Israeli raid in 2007. It passed nuclear equipment to Libya, and U.S. officials are concerned that it is cooperating with Burma as well on weapons-related technology.
The Obama administration has held no significant talks with the North since taking office. North Korea conducted its second nuclear test on June 12, 2009. And it is widely believed to have torpedoed a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
U.S. officials have said that they want to let South Korea dictate the pace of any new talks and that both countries and Japan want to see North Korea take significant steps to undo its nuclear program before any new negotiations begin. South and North Korea have recently begun a tentative resumption of ties after the Cheonan sinking.
North Korea began its enriched uranium program in the 1980s; the program was accelerated in the 1990s with the help of Pakistan and one of its lead scientists, Abdul Qadeer Khan, in exchange for North Korean missile technology. In 2002, a CIA fact sheet announced that the agency had obtained "clear evidence indicating that North Korea had begun constructing a centrifuge facility." But then leads dried up, Khan's network unraveled and, in early 2007, Christopher R. Hill, then assistant secretary of state, expressed doubts that the program had ever gotten off the ground.
The most recent U.S. assessment on the issue did not address the question of whether the North has a program now. On Feb. 2, 2010, then-Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the Senate that North Korea had a uranium-enrichment capability "in the past."
But according to Albright's report, North Korea continued work by establishing front companies, some based in China, that bought equipment often from European companies.
Albright and others have said the biggest unanswered question is the location of North Korea's centrifuges. "The best comment," Albright said citing a Western intelligence official, "was, 'Look, there are thousands of sites in North Korea and it could have been any of them.' ''