New Plant Raises New North Korean Nuclear Concerns

North Korea has unveiled to the world a new nuclear processing facility that puts back on the table the question of just what we should, or can, do about the fact that a rogue state possesses nuclear weapons and wants to build more.

Today’s New York Times brings news of a new North Korean nuclear facility that could put the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program back on the front burner of world politics:

North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist earlier this month a vast new facility it secretly and rapidly built to enrich uranium, confronting the Obama administration with the prospect that the country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb.

Whether the calculated revelation is a negotiating ploy by North Korea or a signal that it plans to accelerate its weapons program even as it goes through a perilous leadership change, it creates a new challenge for President Obama at a moment when his program for gradual, global nuclear disarmament appears imperiled at home and abroad. The administration hurriedly began to brief allies and lawmakers on Friday and Saturday — and braced for an international debate over the repercussions.

The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building that had housed an aging fuel fabrication center, and that were operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.

American officials know that the plant did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country. The speed with which it was built strongly suggests that the impoverished, isolated country, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006, had foreign help and evaded strict new United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed to punish its rejection of international controls.

Previously, we know that North Korea has received from Pakistan’s renegade nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, and from the Iranians. The speech with which the facility was constructed would seem to suggest that they are indeed getting help again, especially considering North Korea’s impoverished economy.

The United States is denying that this was done without the knowledge of our intelligence services, but the tone of the report and the reaction seems to suggest that, at the very least, we had no idea of the scope of this new facility:

The White House is clearly eager to use the new information to show that North Korea, in violation of United Nations mandates, continues to make significant progress toward advancing its nuclear program, even though it remains under international sanctions for its past violations.

American officials were sent to China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, the other members in the moribund “six-party talks.” The Obama administration also hopes to persuade China, by far North Korea’s most important source of political and economic support, to put more pressure on the government of Kim Jong-il, which has shown signs of becoming more militaristic as it undergoes a leadership transition.

China has been hesitant to cut off trade or fuel to the North, and it appears determined to support its longtime, if difficult, ally during its succession process. But in the past China has taken modest steps to support a tougher line when North Korea has tested nuclear weapons or missiles, defying international commitments.

The question is what North Korea’s motives are here in revealing that they have vastly expanded their ability to enrich uranium. While that might be seem like a simple question, reading the tea leaves out of Pyongyang is a task as difficult as it was to figure out what was going on inside the Kremlin during the Cold War. It’s fairly well accepted now, for example, that the nuclear crisis of the early 90s that was “solved” when former President Carter met with Kim Il Sung was prompted as much by the knowledge that the elder Kim was dying and North Korea’s ongoing famine as it was by a desire by the North to actually obtain nuclear weapons. There are similar suspicions this time around that Pyongyang’s motives are, as always, multi-faceted:

The most obvious is to create a new bargaining chip to try to force Mr. Obama to pay off the country. “It’s typical of North Korea, to see if we will reward them” for suspending operations or dismantling the facility, said one senior administration official.

But there are other possible explanations. Just as the North used the sinking of a South Korean warship this year to build the credentials of its leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un, the son of the current leader and grandson of the country’s founder, this effort could be designed to show that the North must be accepted as a nuclear state along with the major nuclear powers and Pakistan, India and Israel.

Administration officials said they had no intention of reopening negotiations with the North unless it “demonstrated a seriousness of purpose and constructive action” to live up to its past promises to dismantle its nuclear facilities.

Another possibility, which administration officials declined to discuss, is that the North ultimately intends to build a new generation of hydrogen bombs or thermonuclear weapons, far more powerful than anything in its current arsenal.

Whatever the motivation, though, I think this new story suggests that a nuclear North Korea is here to stay, at least for as long as there is a North Korea.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Intelligence, National Security, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Linda says:

    How’re those sanctions working out for you, UN?
    How’s that diplomacy working out for you, Barack?
    <crickets> Yeah, that’s what I thought.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Kindly remember that NK went nuclear under George W. Bush.  What did Mr. Bush do?

  3. Linda says:

    Granted, but I do believe that it was our current illustrious leader who was going on and on about sitting down with NK, Iran, other such loonies, and having a dialogue with them. So, my point was merely to inquire about how that dialogue was going… Ya know, all that kumbayah, and hand holding, and wishing for peace and love and happiness…

  4. michael reynolds says:

    What exactly do you propose we do?  Our choices are diplomacy or a disastrous war that ruptures our relationship with China and results in artillery dropping on Seoul suburbs.  Given the choice diplomacy sounds like the better idea.  Because although we can’t talk NK around, the Chinese just might be able to.

  5. anjin-san says:

    What do you suggest Linda? Attack North Korea? And if Soeul and Tokyo are destroyed shortly thereafter are you going to enjoy the depression that ensues? And the fallout?
    How did the cowboy thing work out for you? You know, it will be easy, it will be over quickly, Iraq’s oil will pay for everything…
    So instead of weak (very!) sarcasm, how about some actual ideas for dealing with this problem. Or are you just another winger who’s agenda is not the good of our country, but to damage Obama by any means?

  6. Linda says:

    How do you talk to a lunatic, which is what Kim Jong Il is? He’s a Communist thug, who just doesn’t care. If he could harm the US, or her interests, in some way, he’d be more than happy to do so. He will never be an ally.
    Ahmadinejad is also off his rocker. You can’t reason with him. Ahmadinejad has said the US orchestrated 9/11, he’s denied the Holocaust, and has stated he wants to wipe Israel off the map. How do you have a dialogue with that kind of mentality?
    So, these talks that you think are such a great idea, what is the outcome? Because we know whatever they would promise, Kim and A-jad will keep to their end of the bargain, right? They’re just so trustworthy; fine, upstanding young men. Pillars of society.
    As for China, to my estimation, they just want to make sure they get their money back. That’s pretty much their horse in this race.
    And how long do we continue to “talk” while NK and Iran continue to thumb their noses at us? At some point we have to man up. Wagging our finger and saying “naughty, naughty” has gotten us oh so far, and yielded such phenomenal results, right?.
    Personally, I think a MOAB (or tactical nuke), right around Pyongyang might show them, but then I’m radical like that. 🙂

  7. Linda says:

    And by the way Michael, that last line of mine was a joke

  8. Linda says:

    Anjin, my point is just how long do we continue to talk? Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.
    The UN has sanctioned and sanctioned, and guess what? Kim is still hellbent for leather on going down this path. So, hey let’s sanction some more, and maybe we’ll get a different outcome.
    I guess you would like us to talk until there’s a mushroom cloud over one of our allies, or over one of our cities?

  9. anjin-san says:

    Linda – I repeat, what is your plan? If we go to war, there will almost certainly be a mushroom cloud over one of our allies. If you don’t want to talk any more, what exactly do you want to do? Or is this just about complaining about Obama?
    An attack on Iran will almost certainly mean a major interruption of oil supplies and a depression. And BTW, when was the last time Iran/Persia launched a war of agression? A lot of leaders employ heated rhetoric, they do not necessarily follow through with it.
    How many people are you willing to kill because it pisses you off that someone has the terminity to “thumb their noses at us”? Thousands? Millions? Are you going to write letters to the families of the servicemen/women who died in the name of “manning up”?
    Sure Kim is a communist butcher and probably a looney tune to boot. So was Stalin. We settled that problem reasonably well without a blood bath.

  10. anjin-san says:

    > I guess you would like us to talk until there’s a mushroom cloud over one of our allies, or over one of our cities?
    Thank you Secretary Rice.

  11. Anjin,

    It wouldn’t even take a mushroom cloud.

    The NoKos have something close to 10,000 artillery pieces and rocket launches on their side of the DMZ, all with in range of Seoul and its suburbs, the population of which is 12 million people. Even without launching a nuke, the North Koreans could inflict massive devastation on one of the must densely populated areas in Asia.

    Anyone clamoring for military action against NoKo is, I think, either insane, delusional, or simply ignorant.

  12. ponce says:

    We should never have asked Stalin to help us finish of Japan…

  13. anjin-san says:

    > We should never have asked Stalin to help us finish of Japan…
    A fine example of the law of unintended consequences…

  14. michael reynolds says:

    It’s emotionally satisfying to talk about “manning up.”  But we wouldn’t be the ones suffering.  It would be the men, women and children of South Korea who would die in the thousands and maybe tens of thousands or quite possibly millions.  South Korea is a democratic state and an ally of ours.  So your emotional satisfaction would mean their destruction.
    Obama is doing what can be done.  Just as Mr. Bush did before him.  In the real world there are limits.  Right now the game is to keep NK from going completely off the deep end while — hopefully — either the Korean people, elements within the NK government, and/or the Chinese, ease us into a better situation.  That’s why we keep talking:  because when we don’t talk things get even crazier.  We’re stalling for time, hoping the Kim dynasty falls.  This is very, very dangerous stuff and not really the sort of situation that calls for  Palin-style assertion of “toughness.”

  15. anjin-san says:

    And lets not forget that once the shooting starts in Korea, we will have to commit ground forces. I know guys who were Marines in Korea. Words cannot describe what they went through.
    Tell me Linda, are you ready to enlist to teach the NK a lesson? Ready to send your kids?  We are not talking about a reality show, we are talking about the real thing…

  16. TG Chicago says:

    Linda, it’s good that your suggestion of nuking North Korea was a “joke”, but discussions of murdering thousands of innocent North Korean citizens do not inspire laughter.

    Seriously, I’ve never been more disturbed by an emoticon than I was when I read this:

    Personally, I think a MOAB (or tactical nuke), right around Pyongyang might show them, but then I’m radical like that. 🙂

  17. steve says:

    Linda- Do you have any ideas at all other than to condemn talking? You did know that Seoul could be wiped out just with North Korean conventional weapons? If Kim Jong is as crazy as you say, would you not presume he would attack if attacked?
    I would judge Ahmadinejad by his actions. He has spread nuclear development facilities all around the country. He has formed trading agreements with China. He, Iran for a long time, fights through proxies just as we did during the Cold War. His country is the prime beneficiary of our invasion of Iraq. I would say that Ahmadinejad and the Iranians are pretty rational and doing fairly well. They are suffering economically, so that is at least a possible venue for us to pursue.

  18. Linda says:

    Yes, I realize that NK could very well devastate SK with conventional weaponry, however I think Kim would relish the “show” of something a little more destructive.
    Perhaps I am just a tad bit jaded. I had an uncle killed on the front lines in Korea. The Forgotten War. No one really gives the country, North or South, much thought, until something happens.
    I also am probably a bit jaded on the Persian Gulf. My ex-husband’s ship (he was in the Navy) was parked off the coast, lobbing missiles into Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
    Anjin queried “when was the last time Iran/Persia launched a war of aggression?” Well, now, while not quite a war, I do recall an incident involving Iran, from Nov 4, 1979 to Jan 20, 1981. A little thing where the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun, and Embassy staff were held hostage. Not quite a war, as I said, but still, not exactly a peaceful action either…
    After the farce of an Iranian Presidential election, the rioting in the streets over there over allegations of fraud and the ensuing martial law, yeah, that was pretty rational. Ahmadinejad saying he’d like Israel erased from the map was rational. Recently he said 9/11 was probably a US operation, which of course is a very rational idea to put forth.
    Sanctions obviously don’t work. They didn’t work during the hostage crisis, and they aren’t working now. The ruling class does not suffer; the poor suffer. And the ruling class doesn’t care. Diplomacy isn’t going to work because Ahmadinejad has said Iran will continue its nuclear endeavors. And if you believe that it’s for peaceful nuclear power (ala 3 Mile Island or Surrey nuclear power plants), then I want some of whatever you’re smoking.
    So, what’s the answer? I don’t know, but I do know what we’re doing now isn’t working.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    If you don’t have an answer — and I applaud your honesty — maybe you shouldn’t be sneering at the people who are in the game and still trying.  It’s like heckling an ER surgeon.  Bill Clinton tried, George W. Bush tried, Obama is trying.  If you have a better idea I’m sure he’d like to hear it.

  20. Linda says:

    Oh my $DEITY! Get a grip! I lost an uncle in Korea. My father was in  Viet Nam. My ex-husband was in Desert Storm.

  21. anjin-san says:

    > A little thing where the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun, and Embassy staff were held hostage.
    I was not happy about that one either. But tell me, have you ever studied the history of the relationship between the US & Iran? We Fvcked these people over in pursuit of our own ends. It is no great shock it ended badly.

  22. anjin-san says:

    > the rioting in the streets over there over allegations of fraud and the ensuing martial law, yeah, that was pretty rational.
    Yup. No riots in the US. Not ever. We are rational folks.

  23. anjin-san says:

    > Ahmadinejad has said Iran will continue its nuclear endeavors
    Is this a shock? We have showed that we are willing to depose regimes we don’t like by force. We have the means to do so…  Does it surprise you that a sovereign state is prepared to go to any means to ensure no one screws with them? We had no trouble at all with Iran being a military power when it suited us, and the Shah was almost as big of an asshole as the people who are in charge there now.

  24. ponce says:

    “Not quite a war, as I said, but still, not exactly a peaceful action either…”
    And I remember when our heroes in the U.S. Navy shot down an Iranian airliner full of women and children.
    And I remember when the C.I.A. overthrew the democratically elected Iranian government and installed a brutal monarchy.
    And I remember when we provided Saddam Hussein targeting information inside of Iran for his WMD.