As tensions spiral upwards on the Korean peninsula, North
Korea's construction of a light water nuclear reactor in addition to its new,
sophisticated uranium enrichment facility, allows the regime to claim that its enrichment
program is for domestic civilian power needs -- as the same argument that Iran makes
-- according the first Western scientist allowed to visit the facility.
Sig Hecker, a
Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory,
toured the Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea on Nov. 12 and gave an
extended briefing on his trip Tuesday at the Korea
Economic Institute. He was joined by two other experts who traveled to
North Korea this month, former Special Envoys Jack Pritchard and Robert
Carlin. Hecker said that he saw 2,000 centrifuges set up in the facility, as
well as construction on a 25 megawatt light water nuclear reactor. He could not
confirm whether the centrifuges were operational, but emphasized that what he
saw represents a huge leap forward for North Korea's nuclear program -- one
that carries grave risks and severe implications for regional and international
"My jaw just dropped, I was stunned," Hecker said of the
moment he saw the centrifuges. "To see what looked like hundreds and hundreds
of centrifuges lined up... it was just stunning. In a clean, modern facility,
looking down I said ‘Oh my god, they actually did what they said there were
going to do.'"
"We must take this seriously, but not overhype it," Hecker continued,
noting that by setting up a reactor to make low enriched uranium, the North
Koreans have the ability to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for bombs
while also claiming the enrichment is for civilian purposes, exactly like Iran.
"The same technology, the same equipment can be used to make
HEU. And then what you have is called the Iran problem," he said. "It's a way
of admitting the uranium enrichment program with a cover story... it's the same
cover story that Iran has."
But are the North Koreans getting help from Iran in
constructing their facility, especially since it
happens to look like the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz?
"What we saw, 2,000 centrifuges... that's about twice what
Iran has done so far. So I'm not sure I would go to Iran if I were North Korea,
it might in the future be the other way around," Hecker said. "But I worry
about cooperation with Iran."
He said that while the design of the facility was not new,
the North Koreans have a new, younger team of scientists working on the design
and construction of the new facility, different from older ones he saw in
previous trips there. But Hecker's chief concern is the safety of the facility, the security of the nuclear material, and having weaponized
material in the hands of the North Korean military.
"Maybe we should have North Korea as part of WANO (the World Association of Nuclear
Operators) to make sure they construct that reactor safely," he said.
Carlin said that it was "ironic" that Pyonyang had
constructed a light water reactor, given that the international community had
been working for years to build such a plant in North Korea under the auspices
of the now-defunct Korean Peninsula Energy
Development Organization. Under that program, the international community
would have had control over the nuclear fuel going in and coming out of the
reactors, but the effort was shuttered in 2006.
"We've been here before, we were going to build a light
water reactor, and we were going to have complete control of the fuel," said
Carlin. "For various reasons that remain unclear, we scrapped that program.... And it doesn't hurt to remind ourselves that
we had a bite at this apple once upon a time."
Carlin also said the message from North Korea was clear: They
are open to negotiation but are going to keep nuclear weapons for a long time and "we better get used to it"
-- unless the United States satisfy all of their security concerns and stop
what North Korea calls American "hostile" policies. He also warned that Chinese
leverage over North Korea was unlikely to affect a positive outcome.
"The Chinese have never said that the North Koreans can't
have a nuclear program to produce electricity. And since the North Koreans say
that's the purpose of their program, I suspect that's going to be where the
bulk of [the Chinese] position is," said Carlin.
Hecker agreed with Carlin and Stanford's John Lewis, who
argued in the Washington Post
op-ed section on Monday that "U.S. policymakers need to go back to square one."
"A realistic place to start fresh may be quite simple:
accepting the existence of North Korea as it is, a sovereign state with its own
interests," Carlin and Lewis wrote.
"For now, the most important thing is don't let the threat
grow," added Hecker, arguing for a containment strategy that would set new red
lines for North Korea, namely no new bombs, no bigger bombs, and no exporting
of nuclear material.
Hecker said the 5 megawatt plutonium reactor that that
operated previously at Yongbyon for years is now shut down, as is the
reprocessing facility for plutonium. He estimated that there are 24 to 48
kilograms of plutonium in North Korea that were produced from that reactor,
enough to make 4 to 8 bombs.
The North Koreans told Hecker that they wanted to complete construction
on the light water reactor by 2012, but Hecker said that was unrealistic: Most
projects in North Korea are scheduled to be completed in 2012 because that's the
100-year anniversary of former dictator Kim Il Sung's birthday.
So why did the North Koreans decide to reveal their nuclear
reactor now? Hecker didn't know for sure, but speculated that the construction
would have been detected soon enough, so Pyongyang wanted to break the news on
its own terms.
Pritchard speculated that the exchange
of artillery fire with South Korea last night was not related to the
revelation of the new reactor and the new uranium enrichment efforts.
"I do not think there is any connection at all" between
North Korea's revelations regarding its nuclear program and the flare up Monday
night, said Pritchard. But he warned that either way, there won't be an
appetite to bring up the issue before the U.N. Security Council, as was done
after North Korea sank the South Korean ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.
"I don't think we will find it going to the UNSC or
additional sanctions for this," he said. "The Cheonan was a dastardly event.
And the difficulty the international community had coming out with an
unambiguous statement, it suggest to me that's not the route we're going to
repeat here now."
Hecker's report on his trip can be found here.
Photo of Robert Carlin taken by Sig Hecker