N. Korea site may aid bomb development

US says work could result in several devices

“I’ve been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time.” — Admiral Mike Mullen. “I’ve been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time.” — Admiral Mike Mullen. (Fred Watkins/ ABC This Week via AP)
By Matthew Lee and Anne Gearan
Associated Press / November 22, 2010

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WASHINGTON — A newly revealed North Korean nuclear facility could speed up that unpredictable nation’s ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons, the Pentagon’s top leaders said yesterday.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he doesn’t believe the facility is part of a peaceful nuclear energy program. “I don’t credit that at all,’’ Gates said in Bolivia, where he is attending a regional defense conference.

The facility appears to be a uranium enrichment facility, Gates said, and it could enable North Korea to build “a number’’ of nuclear devices beyond the handful it is presumed to have already assembled.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called North Korea “a very dangerous country.’’

“I’ve been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time,’’ Mullen said on ABC’s “This Week.’’ “This certainly gives that potential real life, very visible life that we all ought to be very, very focused on.’’

An American nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker, said in a report posted Saturday that he was taken during a recent trip to the North’s main Yongbyon atomic complex to a small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility. It had 2,000 recently completed centrifuges, he said, and the North told him it was producing enriched uranium meant for a new reactor.

Hecker, a former director of the US Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory who is regularly given rare glimpses of the North’s secretive nuclear program, said the program had been built in secret and with remarkable speed.

North Korea’s disclosure of the facility could be a ploy to win concessions in nuclear talks or an attempt to bolster leader Kim Jong Il’s apparent heir. But whatever the reason, the revelation provides a new set of worries for the Obama administration.

The administration has sent Stephen Bosworth, special envoy on North Korea, to Asia for talks with officials in South Korea, Japan, and China, the State Department said yesterday.

North Korea has tested two relatively crude plutonium devices. The new facility uses uranium, which can be used both for civilian power production and to make bombs.

North Korea has not yet demonstrated the capability to refine bomb-making skills to the point that the devices could be attached to long-range missiles. That ability would be needed if the North ever intended to attack far beyond its borders, including the United States.

The United States and other countries are also worried that North Korea could sell the abilities it has to terrorists or other nations that might use them for “dirty bombs.’’

Gates warned that North Korea is developing new long-range missiles and possibly a new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

Mullen, the top US military officer, said the activities reported Saturday would violate UN Security Council resolutions and agreements by North Korea over its nuclear program.

“It confirms or validates the concern we’ve had for years about their enriching uranium, which they’ve denied routinely,’’ Mullen said.

Noting the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, which killed 46 sailors and has been attributed to North Korea, Mullen said on CNN’s “State of the Union’’ that “all of this is consistent with belligerent behavior, the kind of instability-creation in a part of the world that is very dangerous.’’

US officials want North Korea to resume international disarmament talks with Japan, China, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

North Korea has demanded one-on-one negotiations with the United States, which Washington refuses to hold in a formal setting. US diplomats have met with North Koreans on the sidelines of the six-nation talks.

Senator John F. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the “troubling report’’ on the nuclear facility makes it important to restart the international talks and reexamine efforts to put in place penalties against the North.

Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, pointed to China as key, saying Beijing is an influential ally and trading partner of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and is “well-positioned to enhance the international community’s enforcement activities.’’

“Only a comprehensive approach that can achieve security, peace, and development offers any hope of verifiably eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons,’’ Kerry said in a statement. “The longer it takes to launch that effort, the longer the United States and its allies will be forced to cope with the destabilizing consequences of the DPRK’s reckless and irresponsible pursuit and export of highly sensitive technologies.’’