North Korea began building centrifuges to enrich uranium in the late 1990s, a high-ranking North Korean defector said Tuesday. "There is a factory in Huichon, Jagang Province that builds centrifuges," the defector said.
There are fears that centrifuges manufactured in Huichon could have been moved to the nearby Yongbyon nuclear facility north of Pyongyang. Huichon is just 57 km from Yongbyon and the two cities are connected by road and railway.
In November North Korea took U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker to a facility in Yongbyon that contained around a thousand centrifuges. U.S. and South Korean intelligence officials believe that the centrifuges were made elsewhere.
Huichon also houses a cluster of factories that produce precision machinery and electrical components that are crucial to manufacturing centrifuges. According to the Unification Ministry, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited Huichon seven times last year to inspect power plants and factories there. Recently, North Korea has mobilized troops from Kim's own guard corps and is going all out to build a hydroelectric power plant there.
A North Korean source said, "It takes a considerable amount of electricity to operate centrifuges. There are suspicions that North Korea wants to turn Huichon into a uranium enrichment center after completing the hydroelectric plant." The senior defector said North Korea is incapable of producing the engines that are a crucial component of centrifuges and had to import them from Japan, France and Russia.
Turning to the North's existing nuclear weapons, the defector said their efficiency still needs to be improved, so North Korea will try to boost its nuclear capability by conducting a third nuclear test. "There is almost no chance that North Korea will start a war at this point," he added. "High-ranking North Korean military commanders know their country is incapable of sustaining a war."
He also said there appears to be considerable discontent in North Korea about the transfer of power to Kim's son Jong-un. After Kim junior was appointed as successor, security officers reportedly raided the homes of high-ranking officials and dug out vast stashes of dollars, and many proteges of Kim Jong-il's brother-in-law Jang Song-taek and O Kuk-ryol, a vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, are believed to have been arrested.
The defector said claims that former leader Kim Il-sung's last wish was to denuclearize his country are "nonsense." He said there was a heated debate in 1986, when the Yongbyon nuclear facility was almost completed, whether to use it for power generation or weapons development. "At that time, Kim Il-sung issued a lengthy command ordering it to be used to develop nuclear weapons," the defector said. "All the scientists who wanted to use the facility for power generation were fired."
On the North's missile program, the defector said North Korea's Scud B and C missiles, which have a range of 300-500 km, were developed based on two Russian missiles smuggled in from Egypt during the 1960s. At the time, the North provided one of the two missiles to China, and as a gesture of gratitude Beijing in turn offered technical assistance to the North in the 1990s in order to boost the performance of the weapons. He added that Swedish builder and mining equipment maker Atlas Copco helped North Korea build a large cave in Ryanggang Province that came under suspicion in 1999 for housing an underground nuclear facility.
Regarding North Korea's attack against the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan, the defector said it was "probably the result of years of preparation" after naval clashes on the West Sea in 1999 and 2002. He said the skirmish in 1999 killed around 20 North Korean sailors, wounded around 70, sank one vessel and destroyed seven more.
In 2002, six South Korean sailors died, but some dozen North Korean sailors were killed and 15 wounded, and one of the North's vessels was completely destroyed. "When it realized it could not beat South Korea with ships, North Korea turned to torpedoes to plan a surprise attack," the defector said.