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North Korea Admits to Uranium Enrichment Programme

Dr. Ch. Viyyanna Sastry was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
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  • September 23, 2009

    Indications are that the stalled six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue will resume in the coming months. While North Korea has let it be known that it is willing to return to the negotiating table, the United States showed its willingness to hold one-to-one talks with North Korea. This time, the North Korean capability/status of uranium enrichment programme would, among other things, dominate the negotiations. Earlier on September 3, 2009, the North Korean Permanent Representative to the United Nations had sent a letter to the President of the UN Security Council in which he reiterated his country’s stance on UNSC Resolution 1874, of June 13, 2009. While mentioning the countermeasures initiated by North Korea, he mentioned two issues of significance. One, the reprocessing of spent fuel rods is in its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponised. Two, experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase.

    With this declaration, North Korea has brought the curtains down on one of the most dubious issues that remained unresolved with the United States. The existence and status of the North Korean uranium enrichment programme has prominently figured in the six-party talks and was debated within the intelligence communities of the US, South Korea and Japan for the last several years.

    According to US Congressional Research Service reports, North Korea began a secret uranium enrichment programme after 1995 and was believed to have built a pilot plant for uranium enrichment in the mid-1990s. US officials have admitted that they do not know the locations of North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme, though some reports claimed that the programme is being pursued at six different locations. The Japanese newspaper, Sankei Shimbun, reported on June 9, 2000, the contents of a “detailed report” from Chinese government sources on a secret North Korean uranium enrichment facility inside North Korea’s Mount Chonma.

    The North Korean uranium enrichment programme, however, is not a result of the Bush administration’s hostile posture against North Korea. North Korea had frozen its nuclear programme in 1994 under the Agreed Framework with the United States, in return for 500,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil annually, construction of two-light water power reactors to meet its growing demands, etc. The enrichment issue started figuring prominently since 1999 and the Central Intelligence Agency issued a statement in December 2002 that North Korea could likely produce two or more atomic bombs annually through uranium enrichment after 2004.

    During bilateral talks held in October 2002, the then US Assistant Secretary of State, James Kelly, had confronted North Korean officials led by Vice-Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju with evidence that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment, in addition to the known reprocessing of plutonium from the 5 MW graphite moderated research reactor at Yongbyon. According to Kelly, Kang not only acknowledged the uranium enrichment programme, but also declared that North Korea also possesses “more powerful” weapons. A key piece of evidence reportedly was North Korea’s purchase from Russia of 150 tons of aluminium tubes, believed to be designed to serve as the stationary outer casings of uranium enrichment centrifuges. North Korea, however, later denied making such an admission and cited mis-communication between the US and North Korean delegations at the talks. In South Korea, some experts, however, have believed that the Bush Administration had exaggerated the intelligence findings in order to kill the 1994 Agreed Framework.

    While the exact nature of the North Korean uranium enrichment programme and technical assistance it received from other States is not known, several reports suggest that Pakistan played a key role in the development of the North Korean programme. It may be recalled that Hwang Jang-yop, a Communist Party secretary who defected in 1997, testified that North Korea and Pakistan agreed in the summer of 1996 to trade North Korean long-range missile technology for Pakistani uranium enrichment technology. It is also reported that about 20 centrifuges were provided by the nuclear smuggling network of Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan to North Korea in the mid- to late-1990s. Further, Pakistan had bought an unknown number of 1300 km range liquid-fuelled Nodong missiles, which were later christened as Ghauri missiles. The former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto had, however, revealed that Pakistan paid money for these missiles.

    Iran is another country that is pursuing an aggressive uranium enrichment programme, despite the US pressure. Some western experts are of the view that North Korea and Iran are possibly cooperating in their enrichment programmes.

    The details of the enrichment programme, if any, were expected to be disclosed by North Korea in the six-party talks as it was obliged to disclose all its activities in the second phase of a nuclear disarmament agreement reached in February 2008. However, the talks remain suspended since North Korea walked out of the talks when the UN sanctioned Pyongyang for its April 5 rocket launch.

    The candid acknowledgment of its pursuit of a uranium enrichment programme by North Korea will surely ignite an intense debate in the US, South Korea and Japan. North Korea, as in the past, might be contemplating to use the enrichment programme card, along with reprocessed plutonium from the spent fuel rods, as bargaining chips in its talks with the US and others to obtain maximum concessions. For that, North Korea may return to the six-party talks where the US and its partners might face a rejuvenated North Korea. In the past, Pyongyang had threatened to export its nuclear capability to other States if the US continues with its hostile stand against North Korea. On the other hand, the uranium enrichment issue would prompt the US and its allies to push aggressively for controlling the spread of plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment technologies to new aspirants of nuclear energy. It is to be seen how the Obama Administration would tackle the North Korean nuclear issue in the coming months.