Image: Kim Tae-young, General Han Min-koo
Jo Yong-hak  /  Reuters
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, right, and General Han Min-koo, chairman of South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff, pictured in October. Kim has been described as a "hawk."
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 11/22/2010 4:23:32 PM ET 2010-11-22T21:23:32

South Korea's defense minister raised the possibility of redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in the country Monday, after North Korea showed off its latest advances in uranium enrichment.

Kim Tae-young told lawmakers that such an option could be discussed next month at a newly created joint military committee to enhance deterrence against the North's nuclear programs.

Video: U.S. eyes motives for N. Korea’s plant disclosure (on this page)

"We will review (the redeployment) when (Korea and the U.S.) meet to consult on the matter at a committee for nuclear deterrence," Kim told a parliamentary committee hearing, according to a report in the Korea Herald.

"The Seoul government is closely cooperating with the U.S. in terms of intelligence sharing. So, (the revelation of the new uranium enrichment facility) did not come as a sudden surprise to us," he added.

It was announced in 1991 that U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would be removed from the country, the Korea Herald said.

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The U.K.-based Financial Times reported that Kim was a "well-known hawk," saying he had been criticized by the South's president for his "previous tough talk."

'Effective tool'
However Cheon Seong-whun, of Korea Institute of National Unification, told the Financial Times that Kim's stance could help influence the North.

"Even though relocating nuclear weapons to South Korea could provoke China or Russia, it could be an effective tool to press the North," he said, according to the newspaper.

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The United States and the North's neighbors have been scrambling to deal with Pyongyang's revelation to a visiting American nuclear scientist of a highly sophisticated, modern enrichment operation that had what the North says are 2,000 recently completed centrifuges.

The scientist, Siegfried Hecker, posted a report over the weekend that he said he was taken during a recent trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex to a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.

The facility appeared to be primarily for civilian nuclear power, not for North Korea's atomic arsenal, Hecker said.

But, he said, it "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel."

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Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make nuclear bombs, in addition to its known plutonium-based program. North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests to date and is believed to have enough fissile material to make several nuclear warheads.

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

However, Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, said Monday the revelation of North Korea's nuclear advance not a surprise.

"This is obviously a disappointing announcement. It is the latest in a series of provocative moves ... it is a very difficult problem we have been struggling to deal with for 20 years," Bosworth told reporters in Seoul.

But he added this was "not a crisis, we are not surprised."

"We have been watching and analyzing the (North's) aspirations to produce enriched uranium for some time," he added.

"My crystal ball is foggy but I would never declare any process dead," Bosworth said when asked about the fate of regional six-party talks. "We have hope that we will be able to resuscitate (them)."

The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com staff contributed to this report.

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.

Photos: Daily life in North Korea

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