North’s admission, finally, of uranium enrichment

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North’s admission, finally, of uranium enrichment

North Korea said yesterday that it, in fact, is operating a uranium enrichment plant equipped with thousands of centrifuges, the first time it has admitted publicly that it had the nuclear facility described by a U.S. scientist last month.

“The construction of a light-water reactor is actively underway and a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with several thousands of centrifuges is operating to secure a stable supply of fuel,” reported the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party. Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford University professor, said in a Nov. 22 report of his recent visit to North Korea’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon that he saw a uranium enrichment facility with 2,000 centrifuges along with a small-size experimental light-water reactor.

The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency also issued a report yesterday matching Hecker’s account. “As pressure is built on China to help reduce escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula, thousands of centrifuges are operating at a uranium enrichment facility,” said the KCNA.

Hecker’s revelations startled the world, heralding the possibility that the North is mastering a second way of creating nuclear weapons beyond its plutonium-based ones. Low-enriched uranium is used as fuel for a reactor to generate electricity; highly-enriched uranium, like plutonium, can be used to create nuclear weapons. There has been no third party to confirm the facility, since the North expelled international nuclear inspectors in April 2009.

Hecker said he was told by North Korean officials that the facilities are for meeting its chronic electricity shortage, not for producing nuclear weapons, a claim repeated by the KCNA. “The nuclear energy development project will be used for peaceful purposes in the future,” the KCNA said. The fresh claim of the uranium enrichment facility came as the United Nations Security Council is studying how to respond to the revelations.

After a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to monitor how existing sanctions against North Korea are being implemented, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said at a press conference that the North’s construction of a uranium enrichment plant runs counter to UN resolutions passed against the North after its nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Rice called the North’s ongoing nuclear activities a “threat” and said the U.S. expects the UN “to intensify its important ongoing efforts to tighten sanctions enforcement.”

Meanwhile, South Korea and the U.S. yesterday continued one of their biggest joint military exercises ever.

By Moon Gwang-lip []
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