November 22, 2010 13:28
North Korea showed visiting American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker a uranium enrichment facility containing hundreds of centrifuges, the New York Times reported Sunday. Hecker, a Stanford professor who has led the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he was "stunned" by the sophistication of the new plant, which contained "an ultra-modern control room" that oversaw what the North Koreans claimed were 2,000 centrifuges.
If North Korea has indeed succeeded in acquiring uranium enrichment technology, the nuclear crisis would enter a completely new phase.
The plutonium-based nuclear weapons technology that North Korea has pursued until now needs testing and requires spent nuclear fuel rods as a key ingredient, but the nuclear facility in Yongbyon is now too old to extract spent fuel rods, and the detonation of a nuclear device draws strong international sanctions. China is also unwilling to tolerate further nuclear tests by North Korea.
Instead, the North appears to have opted for a uranium-based program. Uranium-based nuclear weapons have greater explosive power and do not require testing before deployment. The uranium-based bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had not been tested. It is also easy to hide activities to enrich uranium since they can be done in small facilities with several centrifuges measuring 3 m in length and 20 cm in width.
Jack Pritchard, the president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington and a former U.S. nuclear envoy, was shown the building site of what the North said will be a light-water nuclear reactor at Yongbyon during his recent visit to the North. And since the late 1990s, North Korea has been sneaking in centrifuges from Pakistan. The North appears to be trying to demonstrate that these facilities are for civilian use, not to make nuclear bombs.
The international community, including South Korea and the U.S., were unable to stop North Korea despite signs of its intention to acquire uranium enrichment technology and materials. The latest revelation shows another hole in U.S. and South Korean efforts to thwart the North's nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. government has immediately dispatched Stephen Bosworth, the special representative for North Korea policy, to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. This demonstrates the gravity of the situation. North Korea may only have shown its uranium enrichment facilities to U.S. officials in order to draw Washington back to the negotiating table, but what is clear is that it has not slowed the pace of its nuclear weapons program even while it was taking part in negotiations and pledging to abandon it. If North Korea gets its hands on the technology to enrich uranium to weapons grade, Kim Jong-il and his son Jong-un could threaten the region, and especially South Korea, at any time.
That nightmare scenario must be prevented at all costs. South Korea and the U.S. must come up with concrete measures to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and implement those steps, rather than constantly calling on the North to show "sincerity." And China, which has been sitting on its hands, must realize that all of Northeast Asia could become the victim of a nuclear catastrophe.
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