North Korea Nuclear Deja Vu

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North Korea dealt the world’s crumbling efforts to contain the nuclear genie yet another body blow when the one-time Hermit Kingdom invited a U.S. scientist to take an inside peek at Pyongyang’s nuclear complex on November 12 – and floored him with a “stunning” new uranium enrichment plant sporting at least 1,000 centrifuges. Not only is President Obama having trouble winning Senate ratification for the New START treaty, but Iran and North Korea suggest his declared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons is either naïve or nonsensical.

-- Institute for Science and International Security

Stanford University professor Siegfried Hecker said in a report released over the weekend that the North Koreans told him it was already producing low-grade uranium, although there was no way to confirm if the plant was fully operational. “It is possible that Pyonyang’s latest moves are directed primarily at eventually generating much-needed electricity,” he wrote in his report. “Yet, the military potential of uranium enrichment technology is serious.”

He elaborated on his visit:

At the fuel fabrication plant we entered what appeared to be a new building about 100 meters long, across from the tall uranium oxide production building. We later identified it as the former metal fuel rod fabrication building, which I had visited in Feb. 2008 to verify their disablement actions. We walked up polished granite steps to the second-floor control room and observation area. The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning. Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us. There were two high-bay areas on each side of the central island. The high-bay areas were two stories high and we were told 50 meters long each. We estimated the width of the bays to be 12 to 15 meters. There were three lines of centrifuge pairs, closely spaced, the entire length of each hall. We were told that they began construction in April 2009 and completed the operations a few days ago. Overhead imagery now shows a building with a blue roof about 120 meters long.

The top U.S. envoy for North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, is meeting with leaders in South Korea, Japan and China this week. Beijing is widely viewed as the only nation with sufficient clout in North Korea – it has subsidized the impoverished nation for years – to alter its path. The report echoes the findings last month of the nuclear experts at the Institute for Science and International Security.

As with Iran’s clandestine nuclear efforts, the U.S. reacted to Pyongyang’s latest disclosure with highly-enriched rhetoric. “He is predictable in his unpredictability,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC Sunday. “Not too long ago, he killed 46 South Korean sailors. He has, over time, continued to destabilize this region and, in fact, I also believe that this has to do with the succession plan for his son [Kim Jong-un].”

Perhaps. But this is apparently a long-standing family issue. I can recall flying across the Atlantic with Defense Secretary William Perry in April 1994 and asking him about then-recent U.S. intelligence reports that North Korea had – when Kim Jong-un was the nine-year old grandson of the still-ruling Kim Il-sung – already produced one or two nuclear bombs. (Of course, Kim il-sung would die that July, clearing the way for his son, Kim Jong-il, to succeed him, so maybe there is something to this nuclear-dynasty bit Mullen cites).

“Our policy right along has been oriented to try to keep North Korea from getting a significant nuclear-weapon capability,” Perry said at the time. Meaning an insignificant nuclear capability is OK? “We don’t know anything we can do about that,” the Pentagon chief conceded 16 years ago. “What we can do something about, though is stopping them from building beyond that.” Proliferation experts believe North Korea now has up to a dozen nuclear weapons.

This is the fourth episode of North Korean nuclear brinkmanship – following 1994, 2002 and 2006 – designed to win more economic aid. But this latest go-round has happened more quickly than Western experts predicted, and could lead to accelerated nuclear-weapons production.

Neither the U.S. nor other nuclear powers seems able to stop the atomic seepage that has allowed North Korea and Pakistan to gain nuclear weapons, with Iran apparently close behind. But the fact that North Korea has had nuclear weapons for nearly two decades should help us us keep things in perspective, as Gary Milhollin, then-and-still with the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, pointed out after North Korea gained its first nuke: “If the bomb is in a pleasure craft coming up the Potomac by the Pentagon, then I think Mr. Perry would have to admit one bomb is significant.”