North Korea building new nuclear reactor, experts say

By John Pomfret
Saturday, November 20, 2010

North Korea is building a new nuclear reactor, experts say, raising fears that the facility could be used to enhance the country's nuclear weapons program.

New satellite imagery obtained by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) and information gleaned by U.S. experts on a recent visit to North Korea indicate that the government of Kim Jong Il is building a light-water nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.

The facility had been at the center of the country's plutonium program before Pyongyang abandoned it in 1994. Now experts are concerned that the program has been resumed.

Although light-water reactors are generally used to produce electricity, the North Korean facility could be employed to make nuclear-weapons-grade plutonium, especially if the government is undertaking a parallel program to enrich uranium, according to David Albright, director of ISIS.

ISIS reported in October that North Korea "has moved beyond laboratory-scale work" and is capable of building a "pilot plant" of centrifuges to enrich uranium.

The Obama administration has declined to conduct negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. In May 2009, less than six months after President Obama took office, North Korea conducted its second test of a nuclear device, hardening Washington's resolve not to speak with the North. In March of this year, North Korea's military is widely believed to have torpedoed a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, further setting back the possibility of talks.

There has been a thaw in recent months. South Korea and North Korea have taken tentative steps to reopen ties after the sinking of the warship, the Cheonan. The South has provided the North with food aid. Some families, separated during the Korean War, have been allowed to meet.

China, North Korea's biggest ally, has also advocated a resumption of talks, arguing that isolating the North only invites irresponsible behavior. Some in the Obama administration have said they agree with China's position.

During a trip to North Korea this month, Charles L. Pritchard, a former special envoy for negotiations with the country, was told by officials there that they were building an experimental light-water reactor. One stop on the tour was the Yongbyon site.

Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute, made the trip with other U.S. experts on North Korea, including Siegfried Hecker, emeritus director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory, who has visited North Korea numerous times.

"The new construction seen in the satellite imagery is indeed the construction of the experimental light water reactor," the security institute has quoted Hecker as saying.

Hecker and other U.S. experts are scheduled to give a presentation on their findings Tuesday in Washington at the Korea Economic Institute.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company