North Korean Uranium Enrichment Progresses, Analysts Say

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North Korea seems to be making progress in its military uranium enrichment program, which would give the nation another pathway to building nuclear weapons and a valuable technology to sell on the black market, a U.S. think tank said in a report today (see GSN, Oct. 7).

The Institute for Science and International Security report, “Taking Stock: North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Program,” asserts that the North “has moved beyond laboratory-scale work” and is equipped to erect a centrifuge “pilot plant” for uranium enrichment. The report relies on information from news reports, the intelligence community and government officials, according to the Washington Post.

Drawing on information about North Korean equipment acquisitions abroad, report co-author and ISIS President David Albright said the Stalinist state might have between 500 and 1,000 centrifuges. Most specialists think the North would require 3,000 centrifuges to enrich enough uranium for one weapon (see GSN, Jan. 6).

Previously, U.S. nuclear negotiators had primarily concerned themselves with Pyongyang’s plutonium production activities while uranium enrichment was considered a secondary concern.

“But this would indicate that uranium must be included in the engagement no matter what,” Albright said.

With uranium enrichment capabilities, Pyongyang could boost its supply of weapon-ready fissile material, which currently consists of processed plutonium. The North could use both nuclear materials together in a single bomb to make it more deadly or build a thermonuclear weapon.

“A growing concern is that North Korea would provide centrifuge equipment, facilities, and technical know-how or even HEU (highly enriched uranium) to other countries or groups,” the report states.

Pyongyang has a history of proliferation. The North is widely thought in the West to have assisted Syria in building a suspected nuclear reactor that was demolished in a 2007 Israeli airstrike. The isolated state also sold nuclear goods to Libya and Washington is worried Pyongyang is helping Myanmar set up a nuclear weapons program.

In February, former National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told lawmakers that Pyongyang had some ability to enrich uranium “in the past.”

The ISIS report, however, argues the North maintained uranium enrichment efforts by operating fraudulent firms, some in China, that purchased needed materials from locations such as Europe (John Pomfret,Washington Post, Oct. 7).

“There is no evidence that the Chinese government is secretly approving or willfully ignoring exports to North Korea’s centrifuge program in an effort to strengthen North Korea’s nuclear weapons program,” the report says. “Nonetheless, China is not applying enough resources to detect and stop North Korea’s illicit nuclear trade” (Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press I/Yahoo!News, Oct. 8).

The largest mystery is where the North has stashed its centrifuges. One Western intelligence official reportedly told Albright that there were “thousands of sites in North Korea” where the devices could be located (Pomfret, Washington Post).

Meanwhile, a senior North Korean political official today appeared to support international opinion that ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has selected his youngest son to become the nation’s next ruler, the Associated Press reported.

Workers’ Party Central Committee member Yang Hyong Sop told the television channel APTN that “our people take pride in the fact that they are blessed with great leaders from generation to generation.”

“Our people are honored to serve the great President Kim Il Sung and the great leader Kim Jong Il,” he continued. “Now we also have the honor of serving young Gen. Kim Jong Un.”

Kim Jong Un is in his late 20s and not known to have any military experience before his father appointed him a four-star general last week (Associated Press II/Yahoo!News, Oct. 8).