North Korea’s claims to have a working uranium enrichment plant — a possible second route to a nuclear bomb — sparked anger yesterday in Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
Top US defense officials said the plant would give the hardline communist state the potential to build more nuclear weapons, while Japan called it “absolutely unacceptable” and South Korea voiced “grave concerns.”
Washington’s special envoy for Pyongyang, Stephen Bosworth, said the move was provocative, but “not a crisis,” and he left the door open for engagement with Pyongyang.
Alarm bells rang after a US scientist revealed he had toured a modern, new uranium enrichment plant equipped with at least 1,000 centrifuges on Nov. 12 at the North’s Yongbyon nuclear complex. Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker called the facility “stunning,” adding that he was told it was already producing low-enriched uranium, although there was no way to confirm if the plant was fully operational.
Hecker said his guides told him there were in fact 2,000 centrifuges already producing low-enriched uranium to help fuel a nuclear power reactor. They said it was for a civilian nuclear electricity program.
The US top military officer, Admiral Michael Mullen, told ABC television the assumption is “that they continue to head in the direction of additional nuclear weapons.”
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking in Bolivia, said “an enrichment plant like this, assuming that is what it is, obviously gives them the potential to create a number more [nuclear weapons].”
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young told parliament that Seoul and Washington share “grave concerns,” while Japan’s top government spokesman Yoshito Sengoku called the development “absolutely unacceptable”.
In recent months, Pyongyang has indicated conditional willingness to return to dialogue, but asserts its right to be treated as a nuclear state — something that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo refuse to countenance.
David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, estimated that 2,000 centrifuges could — if reconfigured — yield about 26kg of weapons-grade -uranium per year, enough for one weapon.
Bosworth called the announcement the latest in a series of “provocative moves” by North Korea.
“That being said, this is not a crisis,” he said after talks in Seoul with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan.
“We are not surprised by this, we have been watching and analyzing the [North’s] aspirations to produce enriched uranium for some time, it goes back several years,” he said.
Bosworth, who will go on to Japan and China, said he does “not at all rule out the possibility of further engagement with North Korea.”
However, there would be no “talking just for the sake of talking” and the North must show it was willing to take hard decisions on denuclearization.
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