November 21, 2010 / 6:47 PM / 7 years ago

Q+A: North Korea's uranium enrichment: motives, details

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korea's disclosure of its uranium enrichment program to a U.S. scientist may have important implications for the West's approach to dealing with the reclusive state.

In his newly released trip report, U.S. nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University raises questions about Pyongyang's motives for the disclosure and the far-reaching implications of the discovery.

The North told him their plan was to generate electricity but Hecker wrote "the military potential of uranium enrichment technology is serious."

The bottom-line in Hecker's view? A military strike is out of the question, as are tightening sanctions. "The only hope appears to be engagement."

Here are questions and answers raised by Hecker in his report on his November 12 trip to North Korea:

WHAT DID HE SEE?

Hecker said North Korean officials showed his team the early stages of construction of a experimental light-water reactor and an "industrial-scale" uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges.

"This control room would fit into any modern American processing facility."

ARE THE CENTRIFUGES WORKING?

The North Koreans told him the centrifuges were working but "we were not able to independently verify this."

"Nevertheless, they have either done it as they claim, or are most likely capable of doing so shortly," Hecker writes.

WHAT ABOUT THE SIX-PARTY TALKS?

Analysts say by showing off its nuclear hand, North Korea is seeking to boost its capability to win concessions in stalled disarmament-for-aid talks with regional powers China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

Hecker quoted a senior North Korean technical official telling him that Pyongyang was devoting its economic resources to address the country's chronic electricity shortfall.

"We are willing to proceed with the Six-Party Talks and the September 19, 2005 agreement, but we cannot wait for a positive agreement," the unnamed official was quoted as saying.

ARE THERE OTHER FACILITIES?

"The greatest concern is that a facility of equal or greater capacity, configured to produce (highly enriched uranium) exists somewhere else. Such a facility would be difficult to detect as demonstrated by the fact that this facility was undetected in the middle of the Yongbyon fuel fabrication site," Hecker writes.

WHAT ABOUT PLUTONIUM PROCESSING?

"The plutonium program remains frozen, and has perhaps even taken another step backward. They converted the metal fuel rod fabrication facility into the centrifuge cascade halls, thereby making it more difficult to make fuel for the plutonium production reactor," Hecker writes.

HOW DID THEY DO IT? PAKISTAN? CHINA? IRAN?

"One of the most puzzling issues is how they got this far? ... (other experts have demonstrated the North's) clear pattern of cooperation and exchange with Pakistan, including crucial elements such as on-site training of North Korean technical specialists at the Khan Research Laboratory.

They also show troubling procurement scheme, particularly with commercial entities in China. I have previously stated my concern about potential cooperation and exchanges in uranium technologies between North Korea and Iran," he writes

WHAT OPTIONS ARE THERE IN DEALING WITH NORTH KOREA?

"A military attack is out of the question. Tightening sanctions further is likewise a dead end, particularly given the advances made in their nuclear program and the economic improvements we saw in general in Pyongyang.

"The only hope appears to be engagement. The United States and its partners should respond to the latest nuclear developments so as to encourage Pyongyang to finally pursue nuclear electricity in lieu of the bomb."

A full version of the report can be seen at: here

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