U.N. report suggests N. Korea has secret nuclear sites
Monday, January 31, 2011; 11:37 PM
TOKYO - A confidential report from a panel of United Nations experts suggests that North Korea may have additional secret nuclear facilities, according to U.N. diplomats who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity.
The report, prepared for the U.N. Security Council, reinforces a widely held belief within the Obama administration that North Korea has constructed a network of nuclear sites beyond its Yongbyon plant, which U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker visited in November. The report could also lead to calls for tighter pressure against Pyongyang, which already faces U.N. sanctions designed to choke its nuclear arms program.
During Hecker's visit to Yongbyon, North Korean officials revealed a uranium facility that broadened the country's potential for nuclear weapons manufacturing. The U.N. panel, during its subsequent investigation, endorsed Hecker's view that Yongbyon was merely the visible face of a broader project. The site that Hecker visited, now stocked with roughly 2,000 centrifuges, had been used only two years earlier as a fuel rod fabrication plant. In an interview last month, Hecker explained that the centrifuges - "which require years of research and development" - were likely assembled at a site outside Yongbyon.
North Korean officials told Hecker that the plant will produce low-enriched uranium for peaceful purposes. But if North Korea wanted, the plant could likely produce high-enriched uranium, and could yield enough weapons-grade material for one or two weapons annually.
"At a minimum North Korea has to have a smaller facility where it tests its centrifuges," said Peter Crail, a research analyst at the Arms Control Association. "If North Korea is really going to purpose the Yongbyon plant for low-enriched uranium, it has a strong incentive to keep another plant tucked away for weapons-grade material."
Based on observation of the Yongbyon facility, North Korea has seemingly abandoned its plutonium program - part of a multi-nation disarmament-for-aid deal - and emphasized its uranium program. Both plutonium and uranium offer pathways to produce a nuclear weapon.
According to a May 2010 U.N. report, North Korea has used an elaborate network of shell companies and financial institutions to dodge sanctions and obtain its nuclear technology and know-how. Evidence suggests that North Korea received elaborate help from Pakistan, receiving centrifuge models and instruction manuals from nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.
Only when Hecker visited Yongbyon, though, did U.S. officials receive confirmation of the uranium program they'd long suspected. But it remains unknown whether the centrifuges at Yongbyon are operational.
"I was never able to confirm that they are running," Hecker said. "I asked two officials during my tour, and both said, 'Yes, they're making low-enriched uranium. But in an observation room, insulated by windows. I couldn't see or hear anything."