January 31, 2011 / 8:05 PM / 9 years ago

U.N. urged to tighten grip on North Korea atomic program

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A U.N. panel reported to the Security Council that North Korea may have further secret atomic facilities and called for better implementation of sanctions against Pyongyang, U.N. diplomats said on Monday.

A North Korean soldier guards the bank of Yalu River near the North Korean town of Sinuiju, opposite the Chinese border city of Dandong, December 11, 2009. REUTERS/Jacky Chen

The diplomats told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the assessment and recommendations were included in a confidential report prepared by the so-called U.N. Panel of Experts, a group that monitors compliance with two rounds of U.N. sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear arms program.

The report to the U.N. North Korea sanctions committee was based on conversations with a U.S. nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker, who saw hundreds of centrifuges used to enrich uranium during a rare visit to North Korea last year, as well as the panel’s own investigations and analysis, the diplomats said.

“What the report says is that it’s not operational,” one of the envoys said about North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. “They (the panel) are also mentioning other secret facilities.”

Envoys said the panel endorsed Hecker’s view that there had to be additional secret sites in North Korea, in addition to the facility where Hecker said he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges in November. Hecker visited a former fuel fabrication plant that was virtually empty several years ago.

“There’s no way they could have outfitted the centrifuge facility between 2009 and now without there being additional secret sites,” a diplomat said.

The panel’s report says North Korea’s uranium enrichment work — which is in addition to its plutonium-based nuclear arms program that is a subject of international concern — started back in the 1990s, the diplomats said.

EXCHANGE OF KNOW-HOW WITH IRAN?

Much of what is known publicly about North Korean nuclear activities is based on information about the Yongbyon nuclear complex. But the United States and its allies have long suspected that North Korea has other sites around the country.

A South Korean intelligence official said last month that North Korea has been secretly enriching uranium that could be used to build nuclear weapons at three or four undisclosed locations.

Uranium enrichment could give North Korea a second pathway to fissile material for bombs in addition to its plutonium-based program, which had been frozen under an earlier disarmament-for-aid deal.

North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors from Yongbyon in late 2002 and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a global pact banning the spread of atomic weapons, several months later.

The panel also warned the Security Council’s sanctions committee that North Korea continues exchanges of expertise in the nuclear field. Although it does not name any countries, diplomats said the panel clearly had Iran in mind.

Iran denies pursuing atomic weapons, but Western diplomats and intelligence officials say that North Korea and Iran have been cooperating on missile-related issues and possibly in the nuclear field as well.

The panel urged the council to increase the number of individuals and companies on a U.N. blacklist for supplying North Korea’s nuclear and missile companies. The individuals it suggested blacklisting are connected to Pyongyang’s “military industrial complex” or procurement, the envoys said.

The report makes other recommendations aimed at improving compliance with the U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea after its two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

It says that “neighbors should apply more vigorous export controls,” a diplomat said, adding that it was obviously referring to China.

The panel also calls for greater information sharing among member states and more guidance from the North Korea sanctions committee on how to comply with the U.N. measures.

Envoys said the report urges exporters of sensitive technology to “consult with export control authorities when red flags are raised” — such as large or one-off orders for technology that could be used in a nuclear program.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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