Image: Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2008 and 2010
DigitalGlobe via AP
This photo combination of two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe shows on the left, in the black and white image, the Yongbyon nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, on Sept. 21, 2008. The image on the right was taken Sept. 29, 2010, and shows new construction activity, the Institute for Science and International Security says.
By
updated 11/20/2010 9:31:55 PM ET 2010-11-21T02:31:55

North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist last week 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 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, 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.

    1. Castaway's parents thought they would never see him again

      The father of Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga said he was told his long-lost son vanished on a fishing trip but he didn’t have the heart to break the news to his ailing wife.

    2. Scotland legalizes same-sex marriage
    3. Weapons deal strengthened Assad: US intel chief
    4. Outcry over the fate of Sochi's stray dogs
    5. Olympic construction leaves Sochi residents in the cold

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.

A delegation of American experts that included Dr. Hecker has already reported that it confirmed satellite photographic evidence of another new advance by the North — a light-water reactor being built on the site of a facility the country had dismantled as part of an agreement with the international community to end its nuclear weapons program.

Dr. Hecker did not initially mention the surprising discovery of the uranium enrichment operation as he left North Korea last week. He privately informed the White House a few days ago.

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.

Story: Experts: Images show N. Korea building reactor

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.

Dr. Hecker said he was forbidden from taking pictures during his tour of the uranium plant, and was not allowed to verify North Korean claims that the facility was already beginning to produce low-enriched uranium. “There are reasons to question whether that’s true,” said Dr. Hecker, who also said he has doubts the North has the technology to complete its reactor project.

There are two routes to a nuclear weapon: obtaining plutonium from the spent fuel produced by a nuclear reactor, and enriching uranium to weapons grade.

  1. Most popular

Since the 1950s, North Korea pursued the first path, and its arsenal of weapons was manufactured from fuel harvested from a small nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. That produced enough for roughly a dozen weapons, but the facility was decrepit, and under an agreement with the Bush administration it was shut down in 2008, with television cameras running as its cooling tower was blown up.

But meanwhile, the North was already well down the second path, uranium enrichment, much the way Iran has pursued its nuclear program. Like Iran, North Korea insists the fuel is intended for a yet-unbuilt, experimental reactor to make electricity.

American officials, though, say they believe the real intent of the enrichment program is to make weapons fuel, and since the North has blocked international inspections, it may be impossible to monitor how much fuel it has made, or whether it could be usable for producing or improving atomic bombs.

Slideshow: The life of Kim Jong ll (on this page)

For roughly 15 years, American intelligence agencies have reported evidence that the North was seeking to enrich uranium, largely based on technology it bought from A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear dealer, in a transaction that dates from 1996. There were later reports of North Korean efforts to buy critical centrifuge components, and a suspicious shipment of uranium hexafluoride to Libya that appeared to be of North Korean origin. The Bush administration accused the North in 2003 of secretly pursuing the technology, leading to the ouster of inspectors.

In interviews, administration officials said that they were watching the area by satellite where Dr. Hecker saw the new facility, but they would not say whether they knew about it before he reported back.

“The intel agencies dropped the ball,” said Jack Pritchard, a former State Department official who visited North Korea’s main nuclear complex, Yongbyon, a week before Dr. Hecker’s visit and heard North Korean boasts of a new capability. A senior administration official, while declining to be specific about whether the administration had known of the site Dr. Hecker toured, said the discovery “is very consistent with our long-running concerns.”

“They had this capability well in hand, and very probably have other facilities,” the official said.

Story: Experts: Images show N. Korea building reactor

In interviews, administration officials said they did not want to talk about possible responses to the North Korean action. But their options are limited. North Korea is already a de facto nuclear state; it conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and another shortly after President Obama took office. Sanctions have crippled some of the country’s ability to do business, but clearly they have not forced it to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Military attacks on Yongbyon have been all but ruled out. In interviews over the past two days, administration officials have described several possible motives for the North to build the facility, and to boast about it.

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.

  1. Only on NBCNews.com
    1. OWN via Getty Images
      From belief to betrayal: How America fell for Armstrong
    2. pool via Reuters file
      US to Syria neighbors: Be ready to act on WMDs
    3. China: One-child policy is here to stay
    4. NRA: Practice Range
      New 'Practice Range' shooter game says it’s from NRA
    5. 'Gifted' priest indicted in crystal meth case
    6. AFP - Getty Images
      China's state media admits to air pollution crisis
    7. AFP - Getty Images
      French to send 1,000 more troops to Mali

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 their current arsenal.

The North’s current arsenal of 8 to 12 weapons are all based on plutonium, harvested from the waste of a reactor that has been partially dismantled. But uranium, enriched to bomb grade, can also be used to drastically increase the destructive power of a nuclear blast, and that is the main use of uranium in modern arsenals, including the warheads of the United States.

Experts caution, however, that true hydrogen bombs are quite difficult to make, so it seems unlikely that North Korea would succeed in that step anytime soon.

William J. Broad contributed reporting from New York.

This article, "North Koreans Unveil Vast New Plant for Nuclear Use," first appeared in The New York Times.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

Photos: Kim Jong Il through the years

loading photos...
  1. Happy family

    Kim Jong Il as a child with his father Kim Il Sung and first wife Kim Jong Suk. (Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Young student

    A1963 photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong Il when he was a student of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. With his friends

    Kim Jong Il, second person from right, takes part of a souvenir picture with his friends in this undated photo. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Official business

    In his young days working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Training exercise

    Kim Jong Il leads the firearms training of the February 2nd National Sport Defense team members while he was working at the Central Committee of WPK (Worker's Party of Korea). (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Meeting with farmers

    Kim Jong Il talks with farmers when he was in the Central Committee, May 21, 1971. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Test drive

    Kim Jong Il takes a test drive of a play equipment combat plane in Taesong amusement park, Pyongyang in North Korea,Oct. 2, 1977. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Filmmaking

    Kim Jong Il gives advice at the shooting of "An Jung Geun Avenges Hirobumi Ito," a narrative film. (Korean Central News Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Father and son

    Kim Jong Il was anointed successor to his father, Kim Il Sung, in 1980. Known as the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung and his son are shown attending a Korean Worker's Party convention in October of that year. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Family portrait

    Kim Jong Il, bottom left, poses memebers of his family in this 1981 photo in Pyongyang, North Korea. Sitting at right is his son, Jong-Nam, Kim's sister-in-law Sung Hye-Rang stands at top left with her daughter Lee Nam-Ok, center and son Lee Il-Nam, top right. While virtually nothing is known about the leader's personal life, an attempt by his first-born son Kim Jong Nam, bottom right, to enter Japan on a false passport in May, 2001, briefly shone a light onto his family's private dealings. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Applause please

    Kim Jong Il meets with Korean People's Army personnel in this Sept., 1988, photo. North Korea is believed to be the most heavily militarized country in the world on a per capita basis. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Like father, like son

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il stands next to his father, Kim Il Sung, inspecting a football field in Pyongyang. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Silent famine

    Residents of Taziri, North Korea, wait for Red Cross food supplies in December 1995, not long after the death of Kim Il Sung left Kim Jong Il in control of the country. At the time, around 130,000 North Koreans were reportedly on the brink of famine and 500,000 were homeless. (Calvi Parisetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Kim looking at things

    North Korean leader Kim Jong Il inspects cucumbers harvested inside the 770th army base near Nyon Won power plant in Pyonan-Namdo. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Frenemies?

    South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, right, hugs North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at the end of their summit meeting at the airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. The two leaders held historic talks for three days in June 2000. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A visitor from Russia

    Kim Jong Il walks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, as he arrived in Pyongyang in July 2000 for talks on halting North Korea's missile-development program. (Itar-tass / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Toasting the U.S.

    Kim Jong Il toasts U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang in October 2000. The visit was part of an coordinated effort by Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan to end the country's isolation. (Chien-min Chung / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A giant leader

    A portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il displayed at an entrance of the foreign ministry in Pyongyang August 2002. (Shingo Ito / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Welcoming Japan

    Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, left, shakes hands with Kim Jong Il after signing a joint statement at the end of a one-day summit in Pyongyang on Sept. 17, 2002. North Korea admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s and using them to train spies. (AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Crowds in the square

    In January 2003, more than one million people gathered on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang to hear political leaders hail North Korea's dramatic decision to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Tearful goodbyes

    Emotional South Koreans bid farewell to their North Korean families following a brief reunion in July 2004. The families were separated by the border that was imposed after fighting ended in 1953. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. X marks the spot

    A South Korean protester holds a picture of Kim Jong Il marked with a cross during a rally in Seoul on July 7, 2006. Demonstrators denounced Pyongyang's test-firing of seven missiles. (Lee Jin-man / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Wining and dining

    South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun joins Kim Jong Il at a farewell lunch in Pyongyang on Oct. 4, 2007, after the two sides signed a pledge to seek a peace treaty to replace the 54-year-old cease-fire that ended the Korean War. With no treaty in place, the two countries technically are still at war. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Military matters

    Kim Jong Il visits a military unit in this picture released by North Korea's official news agency on Aug. 11, 2008. It was Kim's last public appearance before intelligence officials suggested he had fallen gravely ill. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. In the public eye again

    In this image taken from North Korea's KRT state television, Kim Jong II attends the first session of the Supreme People's Assembly on April 9, 2009, in Pyongyang. It was his first major public appearance since reportedly suffering a stroke in August 2008. (APTN) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Paying his respects

    A gaunt-looking Kim Jong Il, sitting center in the front row, is surrounded by high-ranking officials during a ceremony marking the 15th anniversary of his father's death on July 8, 2009. Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea, remains known as the country's"eternal president." (KCNA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Visit from Clinton

    Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, right, meets with Kim Jong Il, left front, in Pyongyang on Aug. 4, 2009. North Korea pardoned and released two detained U.S. journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, after the meeting. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Calling on a cotton farm

    Kim Jong Il inspects a cotton plant farm of the Korean People's Army's 1596 unit on Nov. 29, 2009. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Meet-and-greet

    Kim Jong Il waves as people including soldiers applaud during a visit to the construction site of the Kumyagang Army-People Power Station in South Hamgyong Province in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in August, 2010. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. China visit

    Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, meets with Kim Jong Il in Changchun, in northeast China's Jilin province, on Aug. 27, 2010. (Ju Peng / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Likely heir

    North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, seated at center in sunglasses, and his youngest son Kim Jong Un, seated at left, pose for a photo with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency on Sept. 30, 2010. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son as successor this week, promoting him to senior political and military positions. (KCNA via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (2nd L) and his youngest son Kim Jong Un (3rd R from Kim Jong-il) visit the cemetery for Chinese soldiers who died during the 1950-53 Korean War in Hoechang County, North Korea, Oct. 26, 2010, in this picture released by North Korea's official KCNA news agency. (KCNA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. North Korea leader Kim Jong Il, right, and his son Kim Jong Un attend a massive military parade to mark the 65th anniversary of the communist nation's ruling Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea on Oct. 10, 2010. Kim Jong Il, North Korea's mercurial and enigmatic leader whose iron rule and nuclear ambitions dominated world security fears for more than a decade, has died. He was 69. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Pass in review

    Kim Jong Il attends a military parade to celebrate the 63rd founding anniversary of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in Pyongyang on September 9, 2011. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A tearful announcer dressed in black announces the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong il on North Korean State Television on Dec. 19, 2011. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died on a train trip, state television reported on Monday, sparking immediate concern over who is in control of the reclusive state and its nuclear program. The announcer said the 69-year old had died on Saturday of physical and mental over-work on his way to give "field guidance". (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. The body of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is seen inside a glass coffin as people pay their respects, Pyongyang, North Korea, on Dec. 20, 2011. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  1. ARCHIVES : KIM IL SUNG AND KIM JONG IL
    Noboru Hashimoto / Corbis Sygma
    Above: Slideshow (36) The life of Kim Jong ll - Kim Jong Il through the years
  2. Image:
    KCNA via AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (42) The life of Kim Jong ll - World reacts

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments