News this weekend that North Korea showed off 2,000 uranium-enrichment centrifuges and the initial construction of a 100-megawatt light-water reactor before a visiting team of American scientists generated two very different political responses. In Seoul, U.S. special envoy for North Korea Stephen Bosworth immediately declared, “This is not a crisis.” The Japanese government, meanwhile, insisted that it was “absolutely unacceptable,” and South Korean defense minister Kim Tae-young told South Korea’s parliament that he was considering asking the U.S. to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons on South Korean soil.
Clearly our Asian allies are not taking the news in stride, especially not after North Korea’s artillery attack this week against Yeonpyeong Island. We shouldn’t either.
What the North Koreans revealed is pretty significant: They claim that their 2,000 centrifuges are capable of producing up to 8,000 separative work units — or two bombs’ worth of weapons-grade uranium — per year. The “small” light-water reactor they are now building, they claim, could come on line as soon as 2012. Its planned generating capacity is roughly five times that of the reactor North Korea used to make its current crop of plutonium bombs. That’s enough to make five bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.
If North Korea only meant to use these new nuclear facilities for itself, that would still be alarming. It’s conceivable that North Korea could plug a 100-megawatt reactor into the country’s rickety electrical grid without blowing it apart, though it is doubtful that the North Koreans could perfect the kind of reactor fuel that would allow the machine to produce optimal amounts of power. What’s far more likely is that Pyongyang will only be able to produce low-burn-up fuels for the reactor, optimal to make uneven-isotope plutonium — which just happens to be the ideal type of plutonium for making nuclear weapons.
North Korea already has several plutonium bombs. Now it can make more bombs with more advanced designs that use both uranium and plutonium in their cores. How many? It’s unclear, since we have no idea where else, if at all, North Korea might have covert enrichment plants hidden.
What’s more worrisome is that North Korea is almost certain to put its enrichment and reactor technology on the world market, just as it helped Syria make its plutonium-producing reactor and has helped Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan with their nuclear-capable-rocket programs. China and Iran helped facilitate the Syrian-reactor effort. One can only wonder what role those states might play in helping North Korea hawk its new nuclear wares.
U.S. and other intelligence agencies have known that North Korea was working on uranium enrichment since former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto reportedly negotiated a nuclear exchange with Pyongyang back in the early 1990s, but the actual progress and specifics of the program have been much more difficult to pinpoint. Now, with North Korea’s latest nuclear surprise, it has become all the more necessary for the U.S. to take action to prevent other states from following North Korea’s example or, just as bad, buying its nuclear goods. Instead of simply talking about engaging North Korea in more talks, the U.S. and its Asian allies need to get serious about dealing with Pyongyang.