North Korea may have acquired the ability to indigenously manufacture specialized-gas centrifuges, which would enhance its efforts to enrich uranium and further limit the international community’s ability to constrain its nuclear-weapons work, the New York Times reported on Monday, citing a new study.
The analysis by nuclear experts Joshua Pollack and Scott Kemp comes amid other indications that Pyongyang is moving its nuclear-weapons program forward on multiple fronts. Recently taken satellite photographs show indications of a possible long-range rocket-engine test and a formerly mothballed plutonium-production reactor appears to have been restarted.
The United States and other nations have tried to limit North Korea’s ability to enrich uranium by curbing its international access to the components and materials needed to build advanced centrifuges. If Pyongyang were capable of building centrifuges with parts it can locally produce, it would be much more difficult for other nations to estimate how much fissile material the North is capable of generating. It would also be harder to be certain it is abiding by denuclearization promises, should a new accord ever be struck on the matter.
“We won’t be in a good position to spot them expanding the program through foreign shopping expeditions,” Pollack said. “Polices based on export controls, sanctions and interdiction won’t get much traction, either.”
“The deeper implication, if they are able to expand the program unchecked, is that we’ll never be too confident that we know where all the centrifuges are. And that in turn could put a verifiable denuclearization deal out of reach,” he continued.
Pollack said indications suggest indigenous production of centrifuge parts started at the latest four years ago. He and Kemp examined publicly available information gathered from media stories, scientific journals and regime announcements to build the case that North Korea is figuring out how to produce nuclear production-related materials and items such as vacuum pumps, magnetic-top bearings, maraging steel, uranium hexafluoride and frequency inverters.
U.S. nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker in an e-mail to the Times said he believes most of Pollack and Kemp’s analysis is correct. However, he is less convinced of the evidence that Pyongyang has the ability to generate high-quality maraging steel — a particularly challenging part of the centrifuge manufacturing process. “Having said that, if North Korea does indeed double the size of its Yongbyon centrifuge plant … then the likelihood of indigenous fabrication of maraging steel has increased,” he wrote.
In a sign of how concerned China is over North Korea’s continued nuclear-weapons development, Beijing has taken the unusual step of publicizing its new export controls for a range of “dual-use” items that Pyongyang is now banned from importing, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday. The restrictions cover materials that can be adapted to produce biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as well as ballistic missiles.
Instead of just quietly rolling out the new trade restrictions, Beijing made a point of publicly announcing them, Nanyang Technological University China security specialist Li Mingjiang said.
“The leaders in Pyongyang will hate this. They’ll be angry,” according to the expert.
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