SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has secretly and quickly built a new, highly sophisticated facility to enrich uranium, according to an American nuclear scientist, raising fears that the North is ramping up its atomic program despite international pressure.
The 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 facility with a small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility. The facility had 2,000 recently completed centrifuges, he said, and the North told him it was producing low-enriched uranium meant for a new reactor.
Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos NuclearÂ Laboratory who is regularly given rare glimpses of the North’s secretive nuclear program, acknowledged that it was not clear what North Korea stood to gain by showing him the formerly secret area.
The revelation could be designed to strengthen the North Korean government as it looks to transfer power from leader Kim Jong Il to a young, unproven son. As the North’s economy suffers and Washington and others tighten sanctions, unveiling the centrifuges could also be an attempt by Pyongyang to force a resumption of stalled international nuclear disarmament-for-aid talks.
Whatever the reason, the new centrifuges provide a fresh set of worries for the Obama administration, which has shunned negotiations with the North following Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests last year and in the wake of an international finding that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors. The U.S. State Department announced that the Obama administration’s special envoy on North Korea planned to visit South Korea, Japan and China, starting Sunday.
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