Concerns Growing Over North Korea's Nuclear Program

Robert Siegel talks to Joshua Pollack, a consultant to the US government, about concerns that North Korea has or could soon have the tools to make the centrifuges to enrich the uranium to make the atomic weapons without having to import key elements in the process. Pollack studies arms control, proliferation, deterrence, intelligence, and regional security affairs. He also writes for the blog Arms Control Wonk.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

People who monitor nuclear proliferation are obviously concerned about how many nuclear devices a country may have but not own up to owning. They're also concerned about how much uranium a country has enriched and to what degree of purity it's been enriched. And they're concerned about how many gas centrifuges there are to enrich that uranium. Digging still deeper, they track the materials you need to make those centrifuges.

And now, we're going to hear from a nuclear proliferation expert about a concern that precedes even all the other questions: Does the country in question have the tools with which you can make the materials to make the centrifuges to enrich the uranium to make the bomb?

Joshua Pollack is a Washington-based expert on nonproliferation, who also blogs at the site Arms Control Wonk. He is in Seoul, South Korea, and he has written about a development that I've just described in North Korea. Welcome to the program.

JOSHUA POLLACK: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: What do the North Koreans have that we didn't know they had before?

POLLACK: What they appear to have is the ability to produce crucial components for enrichment with gas centrifuges. And that, in turn, would give them the potential to expand their nuclear program without creating openings for the United States and its allies to interrupt that expansion.

SIEGEL: You've written in particular about a kind of highly specialized lathe with which a country can use the hardened steel with which you make centrifuges. Is this what the North Koreans have and how do you know that they have it?

POLLACK: Well, a flow-forming lathe can take a relatively rough, thick metal cylinder and extend it into a thin-walled strong cylinder which can be used as the spinning component, the rotor of a centrifuge. We know that they have flow-forming machines because they've put them on television. That is the only aspect of this technology that I believe they've put on television. The rest we know about through technical documentation that you can find in obscure nooks and crannies.

SIEGEL: There is a commodity, I've heard it called maraging steel or maraging steel. It's, I believe, nickel-hardened steel, and it can be used to make these centrifuges. Your finding is that the North Koreans perhaps don't have to acquire this material from overseas. They can make it and they can work with it.

POLLACK: Well, I'm not aware of any efforts to buy it overseas since the late 1990s. So one possibility is they're hiding imports very well. But another possibility is they've learned how to make it.

SIEGEL: Well, let's assume that you've got it right here and that the North Koreans are capable of making more of the components that you need in order to enrich uranium, making them on their own and not having to go acquire them overseas. How much of a game changer is that development in terms of trying to control North Korea's nuclear program?

POLLACK: It tends to cast into question the continued usefulness of the policies that the international community has relied upon. There's a large focus on sanctions, on interdiction of shipments and export controls. But if the North Koreans are making these components and technologies at home, these policies will not be capable of interrupting that process because we won't see the major purchases involved in that expansion without giving us opportunities to interrupt the process. And in general, we will continue to be surprised.

SIEGEL: Well, Joshua Pollack, thank you very much for talking with us today about your research.

POLLACK: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Joshua Pollack, who writes about and consults about proliferation issues in Washington, D.C. and who blogs for the website Arms Control Wonk, spoke to us from Seoul, South Korea.

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