U.S. knows of North’s secret uranium site

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U.S. knows of North’s secret uranium site


On Monday, 38 North, a Pyongyang analysis website, revealed satellite imagery from May 7 that provided evidence that dismantlement of the test site was underway. [YONHAP]

Washington is currently aware of the location of one or two of Pyongyang’s secret uranium enrichment facilities, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is expected to acknowledge their existence and allow them to be inspected in the upcoming North-U.S. summit, according to a diplomatic source.

“Five years ago, the United States conveyed that the facilities are an issue,” the diplomatic source well informed on matters of the North-U.S. summit told the JoongAng Ilbo on Monday. “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is seen to have made up his mind to reveal such facilities as one of the big actions he plans to take” during his upcoming historic meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump scheduled for June 12 in Singapore. Pinning down North Korea’s plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel for nuclear weapons is a key challenge for North Korean denuclearization, including locating the facilities producing them and estimating the size of the country’s stockpiles of fuel.

American nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, led a group of U.S. scientists to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex in November 2010. He later said that one facility contained 2,000 centrifuges producing low-enriched uranium but that the facility could be easily be converted to produce HEU bomb fuel - and that parallel facilities could exist elsewhere. They were the last group of U.S. scientists to make such a visit, and since then, North Korea’s HEU facilities and stockpile have been opaque.

“The United States views that besides the one or two secret facilities, there can be more secret HEU facilities in North Korea and it is in the process of confirming them,” said this source.

Another official indicated the exact location of such secret uranium enrichment facilities is a closely guarded secret and not confirmed, but there is a high likelihood of one being located underground near the Panghyon Airfield in Kusong, a city in North Pyongan Province, or in some other location in the province.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made two visits to North Korea, at the start of April and again last week on May 9, and met with leader Kim Jong-un both times. Thus, some progress is assumed between the two sides on what denuclearization could mean. But, the first diplomatic source indicated, “The level agreement between the sides on a road map toward denuclearization is seen to be at 50 percent.”

Washington is pressuring Pyongyang to show a clear intention toward denuclearization through action. In turn, North Korea has taken measures such as announcing last Saturday that it will publicly dismantle its Punggye-ri nuclear test site in North Hamgyong Province between May 23 and 25.

Regardless of what sort of deal Trump and Kim will try to reach during their summit, American officials are adhering to the position that they will not allow a repeat of North Korea pledging denuclearization and then reneging on those pledges as in the past. This could mean that the United States will not immediately lift sanctions on the North in a phased manner, awarding each action.

A diplomatic source in Washington said, “U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will not be heading to Singapore [for the U.S.-North summit]. This is to prevent sending the wrong message to North Korea on sanctions.” The Treasury Department has been behind Washington’s stringent economic sanctions on the North, and the Trump administration has credited its maximum pressure campaign as having brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

While Washington has pushed for a speedy process of denuclearization, the timeline will not likely be six months to one year, as has been suggested by some U.S. observers.

The first source knowledgeable on matters of the summit said, “Taking into consideration that there is an immense number of known North Korean nuclear facilities, completing a [verification and inspection] process within six months to one year is unrealistic. Generally, the deadline for North Korea’s denuclearization is being set for two years, by 2020.”

According to this view, it is important to reach a breakthrough early on in an administration, since North Korea has experience attempting to resolve the nuclear issue but being too late. In 2000, toward the end of the Bill Clinton administration, the North invited then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Pyongyang, but negotiations fell apart after the change in U.S. administration.

The next U.S. presidential election is held in November 2020. The United States apparently is intentionally not revealing another card to North Korea on the method of inspection of its facilities or who will be involved.

The source said, “Currently, North Korea is trying to grasp what the United States wants and add onto it a bit to present a ‘big proposal.’ The United States, knowing this, intentionally is not revealing what it wants.”

Specifically, it is not being revealed whether the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will lead inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities or whether it would involve the permanent five, or P5, members of the UN Security Council - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, along with South Korea.

It could also be a bilateral or multilateral format, but Washington “is not telling North Korea” because following the North Korea-U.S. summit, China or Russia’s involvement could also be “another negotiation card.”

Pyongyang on Saturday invited international journalists to watch the dismantling of the Punggye-ri site, and the latest satellite imagery showed the disassembly is already in process.

On Monday, 38 North, a Pyongyang analysis website, revealed satellite imagery from May 7 that “provided the first definitive evidence that dismantlement of the test site was already well underway.”

Several key operational support buildings have been razed, rails for mining carts between tunnels have apparently been removed, carts disassembled and small sheds and outbuildings around the site have been removed. North Korea previously announced that the final dismantlement of the site will include collapsing all of its tunnels through explosions, blocking their entrances, and removing all observation facilities, research buildings and security posts.

BY KIM HYUN-KI, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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