NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 71 (September 10, 2009) |
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK
N.K. Says It Has Reached Final Phase of Uranium Enrichment Program
SEOUL (Yonhap) -- After weeks of conciliatory gestures, North Korea said on Sept. 4 that its uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons production has entered its final phase and that it is making more weapons from extracted plutonium. In a recurring two-track strategy, the North also said it stands prepared for "both dialogue and sanctions."
The report on what South Korea immediately characterized as "provocations" came less than three months after Pyongyang announced it would commence uranium enrichment and additional plutonium production in response to the tightening U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang's nuclear test in May.
Pyongyang's provocative announcement indicates that the socialist country is apparently growing impatient at the Obama administration's reluctance to talk bilaterally with Pyongyang outside of the six-nation disarmament talks.
"Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted and has entered into the completion phase," the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. "Reprocessing of spent fuel rods is in its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponized."
The report detailed the contents of a letter from Pyongyang's top U.N envoy to the head of the U.N. Security Council, which imposed a set of tough sanctions on the communist state following its recent missile and nuclear tests through the adoption of Resolution 1874.
North Korea's U.N. Ambassador Sin Son-ho said in the letter that his country would not have carried out its second nuclear test in May if the 15-member council had "kept silent" over Pyongyang's long-range rocket launch the previous month, as it did over South Korea's attempted satellite launch in August.
If the U.N. council continues the sanctions drive, the North will be "left with no choice but to take yet stronger self-defensive countermeasures," the KCNA quoted the letter as saying.
The warnings came just hours before Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative on North Korea policy, was to arrive in Seoul as part of his three-nation Asia tour to discuss North Korea issues. Bosworth said after his arrival here that there was "nothing new" to Pyongyang's latest claims of its supposed progress in enriching uranium and weaponizing plutonium.
He also declined an invitation from Pyongyang during his swing. The North reportedly extended an invitation to Bosworth to visit Pyongyang for bilateral talks, but the Obama administration rejected the offer, saying the North should first return to the six-way talks.
Signaling its desire for direct talks with the U.S., the KCNA said, "The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is closely related with the U.S." "We have never objected to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and of the world itself. What we objected to is the structure of the six-way talks which had been used to violate outrageously the DPRK's (North Korea's) sovereignty and its right to peaceful development," it added.
The secretive North is believed to have 30-40 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make six to eight nuclear bombs. But many see its uranium enrichment program as a bigger threat as it is harder to detect and easier to develop than a plutonium based program.
The South Korean foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing the North's uranium and plutonium activities. "It is not tolerable," ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said of North Korea's continued nuclear activities. "The government will deal sternly and consistently with North Korea's threats and provocations."
He added that the North's latest declaration shows its policy on the nuclear issue has not changed despite the recent overtures. "There has been no ground so far to believe that North Korea has shifted its attitude or policy on the nuclear issue," Moon said. "The announcement this time confirms the fact."
Experts here downplayed it as part of Pyongyang's typical brinkmanship. "This is a time-honored North Korean pattern -- are you going to let us do the enrichment or settle this through negotiation," Dongguk University professor Koh Yu-hwan said. "But when the verbal warning brings nothing, the North usually takes it into action. Now is the verbal stage, and North Korea will see how the related countries respond."
Government officials said that the North's defiant stance will only make it harder for the Obama administration to soften its stance on Pyongyang. Washington, hoping to engage adversaries such as Iran and Cuba, has been in a dilemma over how to deal with Pyongyang's demand for one-on-one dialogue outside of the six-party disarmament talks, which also involve South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan.
Washington insists it won't engage North Korea bilaterally until the latter returns to the six-party nuclear talks. U.S. support for the international sanctions on the North also remain steady despite a series of conciliatory moves North Korea has taken toward the U.S. and South Korea.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul, said the letter to the U.N. should be seen as more of an appeal for dialogue than a provocative warning.
He says the message used measured language, underscoring the need for dialogue. "Rather than a warning, it's a manifestation of the North Korean position -- the U.N. resolution is fundamentally wrong, but why us?" Yang said. "It is saying North Korea-U.S. direct talks will cut corners, but if the U.S. keeps on beating around the bush, it will have to take the path toward stronger nuclear deterrence," he said.
In what appeared to be conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington, Pyongyang released detained South Korean and American citizens, restored stalled inter-Korean ventures and sent a delegation to Seoul to pay condolences to late former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. South Korea downplayed the conciliatory steps as "tactical" rather than fundamental.
Local experts in Seoul also said that North Korea has made progress in uranium enrichment technology, but it probably does not have the capability to make nuclear weapons with it. Intelligence analysts and experts from military and state-run think tanks speculated that Pyongyang may have completed research and acquired the necessary know-how to operate centrifuges imported from Pakistan in the 1990s.
"The North may be in a position to start full-fledged research that can lead to uranium enrichment," Lee Chun-geun, research fellow in charge of inter-Korean cooperation at the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STEPI), said. He pointed out that if the announcement is true, it is an admission that the communist country has been engaged in a clandestine nuclear enrichment program for a very long time.
In the past, the North used plutonium as its base material to build the two nuclear devices it detonated. The U.S. dropped a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki, while a uranium weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, ending World War II.
Pyongyang allegedly admitted it tried to enrich uranium in late 2002, although it quickly denied the existence of such a program and objected to the matter being included in the six-way talks.
South Korean and U.S. experts have long suspected that the North acquired 20 P1 centrifuges from Pakistan from 1998-2001 and obtained blueprints for more advanced P2 machines. Centrifuge machines spin natural uranium at 50,000-70,000 rotations per minute to separate U-235 from U-238. Higher concentrations of U-235 obtained through this process can be used for both light water reactors and nuclear bombs.
Those used for power production need to be 3-5 percent pure, while purity has to reach 90 percent levels for so-called weapons grade materials. This means 20-30kg of highly enriched U-235 made from roughly 3.5t of natural uranium is needed to make one nuclear device.
Other local experts in the military said if the North has built an enrichment facility, it can produce enough highly enriched uranium to produce one or two nuclear devices per year. This can pose a serious security threat because plutonium weapons are made in large facilities that are hard to hide, but uranium can be enriched in small labs. Such secrecy can make it hard for such facilities to be destroyed through military strikes.