Image: Siegfried Hecker
AP
American nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, left, speaks to media upon returning from North Korea, at Beijing international airport in Beijing, China, on Nov. 13. North Korea has secretly and quickly built a new facility to enrich uranium, according to the American scientist, raising fears that the North is ramping up its nuclear program despite international pressure.
updated 11/21/2010 1:27:14 PM ET 2010-11-21T18:27:14

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Sunday he worries that North Korea is advancing its potential nuclear capability toward "real life" after a scientist reported new activity in its atomic program.

The American nuclear expert who recently visited North Korea says he was taken to a small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility and told that low-enriched uranium was being produced for a new reactor.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, said such activities would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and agreements by North Korea over its nuclear program.

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"From my perspective, it's North Korea continuing on a path which is destabilizing for the region. It confirms or validates the concern we've had for years about their enriching uranium, which they've denied routinely," Mullen said. "They are a country that routinely we are unable to believe that they would do what they say."

Noting the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, which killed 46 sailors and has been blamed on North Korea, Mullen said on CNN's "State of the Union" that "all of this is consistent with belligerent behavior, the kind of instability-creation in a part of the world that is very dangerous."

"They're a very dangerous country," he said on "This Week" on ABC. "I've been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time. This certainly gives that potential real life, very visible life that we all ought to be very, very focused on."

Story: North Koreans unveil vast plant for nuclear use

Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the "troubling report" makes it important to restart international talks about the North Korean program and re-examine the effectiveness of efforts to putting in place penalties against the North.

Kerry, D-Mass., pointed to China as a key, saying Beijing is an influential ally and trading partner of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and is "well-positioned to enhance the international community's enforcement activities."

"Only a comprehensive approach that can achieve security, peace, and development offers any hope of verifiably eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons," Kerry said in a statement. "The longer it takes to launch that effort, the longer the United States and its allies will be forced to cope with the destabilizing consequences of the DPRK's reckless and irresponsible pursuit and export of highly sensitive technologies."

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Video: U.S. eyes motives for N. Korea’s plant disclosure

  1. Transcript of: U.S. eyes motives for N. Korea’s plant disclosure

    LESTER HOLT, anchor (Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan): Troubling news today out of North Korea , a country known to harbor nuclear ambitions. An American scientist visiting that country says he was shown a sophisticated new uranium enrichment plant that US officials say they didn't even know existed. More on what this means from NBC 's Mike Viqueira at the White House . Hello , Mike .

    MIKE VIQUEIRA reporting: Good evening, Lester . Officials here often dismiss threatening displays from North Korea as mere negotiating ploys. But tonight, a potentially dangerous advance in that country's nuclear program has everyone's attention. It's a new challenge from an old nemesis, a defiant North Korea building a uranium enrichment plant, one much more advanced than experts thought possible for the reclusive regime. Today, US officials reacted.

    Admiral MICHAEL MULLEN (Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman): You know, all of this is consistent with belligerent behavior and the kind of instability creation in a part of the world that is very dangerous.

    VIQUEIRA: The plant could supply enough material to dramatically expand and strengthen the North 's nuclear arsenal . Details come in a report from an expert the North Koreans invited to visit the facility nine days ago. Stanford 's Siegfried Hecker describes what he saw as "stunning," adding, "Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea , we saw a modern clean centrifuge plant of more than 1,000 centrifuges." When warned the plant would raise international concerns, Hecker says a North Korean official told him "they can think what they want."

    Unidentified Man: It's good to be back in Seoul. ..

    VIQUEIRA: The Obama Administration dispatched its top envoy to the region. But the motive for revealing the facility, like much of what happens in the North , remains a mystery. As longtime leader Kim Jong Il appears to be passing power to his son, Kim Jong Un , tensions between North Korea and its neighbors have grown. It was accused of sinking a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors. That followed a series of provocations, including tests of both nuclear devices and long-range missiles. Just 11 days ago, President Obama visited the some of the 30,000 American troops stationed near the Korean DMZ .

    President BARACK OBAMA: We've made it clear that the North Korea 's pursuit of nuclear weapons will only lead to more isolation and less security for them.

    VIQUEIRA: Back from the NATO summit , the president and his Cabinet continued battling on another nuclear issue, lobbying Senate Republicans on the START treaty with Russia .

    Ms. HILLARY CLINTON (Secretary of State): Whether you're, you know, already convinced or can be convinced, I think we want to get out inspectors back on the ground, and the only way to do that is by ratifying this treaty.

    VIQUEIRA: And, Lester , what has many experts surprised is the speed by which North Korea constructed that facility. It didn't exist a year and a half ago. And many believe that, despite international sanctions on the regime, there's no way they could have done it without outside help. Lester :

    HOLT: Mike Viqueira at the White House , thanks.

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