Did U.S. Know About N. Korea's Enrichment Plant? Word that an American scientist was shown North Korea's sophisticated uranium enrichment facilities is raising questions: Why didn't the United States stop Pyongyang's enriched uranium program when it had the opportunity? Might North Korea further enrich the uranium to weapons grade? Will North Korea proliferate its nuclear equipment, know-how and/or fuel to other countries believed to want nuclear arsenals?
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Did U.S. Know About N. Korea's Enrichment Plant?

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Did U.S. Know About N. Korea's Enrichment Plant?

Did U.S. Know About N. Korea's Enrichment Plant?

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

First this hour, the latest revelations about North Korea's nuclear capabilities. The Obama administration says North Korea is contradicting its international commitments to denuclearize with a new uranium enrichment plant. News of the plant came not from intelligence but from three American academics, who were recently given a tour of the plant. The Americans called it astonishingly modern. In a few minutes, we'll talk with one of them.

First, here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: There has long been speculation that the North Korean government had a secret uranium enrichment program as part of an effort to expand the country's nuclear weapons stocks. But it took three nuclear experts from Stanford University to give that speculation some grounding. The three men were given a brief tour of the Yongbyon nuclear complex where North Korean officials told them some 2,000 centrifuges were installed.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says U.S. intelligence officials will analyze information provided by the Stanford professors.

Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (Spokesman, State Department): The fact that North Korea invited these scientists to come to Pyongyang and did a show-and-tell, that by itself, is valuable information. We'll compare that with other things that we know, and we'll make a formal assessment as to what we think, you know, this capability represents and what the implications are.

NORTHAM: Crowley says U.S. intelligence intensively watches North Korea all the time and gets information from a variety of sources. Still, there was a sense of surprise amongst senior administration officials about the nuclear complex at Yongbyon - how quickly it was built and the number of centrifuges alleged to be installed.

Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says it's tough tracking uranium enrichment programs in a closed country such as North Korea.

Mr. JIM WALSH (International Security Expert, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): It's often easier to find a plutonium program because they're dirtier than it is a program based on highly-enriched uranium, just because it doesn't give off much of a signal. There's no sign except a building; won't lead you to want to suspect that there's anything going on there.

NORTHAM: David Albright is the director of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank that studies North Korean enrichment programs. Albright says for years his group focused on what material and equipment North Korea was buying as a way to track its centrifuge program.

Mr. DAVID ALBRIGHT (Director, Institute for Science and International Security): We came up with the conclusion that they've procured enough, and there's good indications that equipment was for centrifuge program that you could conclude that they had moved beyond the laboratory scale - the scale of 10, 20 centrifuges - and moved up to at least the pilot scale, which, again, we measure as 500 to 1,000 centrifuges.

NORTHAM: That's about half the number the Stanford professors say they saw at the Yongbyon plant. Albright says it's normal for nuclear weapons experts to estimate on the low side. Albright says he briefed U.S. intelligence officials on his findings in October. He says his group had some information that administration officials didn't have, mostly about procurement, but that the U.S. officials were already fairly well-briefed; that they knew something was going on, just not where. Albright says that presents another problem: that there could be other enrichment sites not yet unveiled by the North Koreans.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: What's missing is where is the rest of the program? And I think North Korea would like us all to just look at Yongbyon and be satisfied, but I think you have to worry a great deal that there's more out there.

NORTHAM: And worry whether U.S. intelligence services can track it.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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