N. Korea May Have Domestic Centrifuge Production Capability

Global Security Newswire Staff
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Global Security Newswire Staff
Sept. 24, 2013, 6:02 a.m.

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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