WASHINGTON — North Korea last week showed an American scientist a vast, new plant for enriching uranium with hundreds of centrifuges already installed and running, the New York Times reported.
Scientist Siegfried Hecker told the US daily late Saturday that he had been “stunned” by the sophisticated new plant and that he had already privately informed the White House of his findings a few days ago after his return.
The North Koreans had claimed some 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running in the plant, which Hecker was allowed to tour, the Times reported. It was not immediately clear where the facility was located.
Hecker said he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges set up in an “ultra-modern control room.”
But he said he was forbidden from taking photographs and could not verify North Korean claims that the plant was already producing low-enriched uranium.
“There are reasons to question whether that’s true,” Hecker told the daily, adding that he doubted Pyongyang would be able to complete the project.
The revelations came as the State Department said Saturday that the top US envoy for North Korea would arrive in Asia on Sunday for talks with regional leaders on Pyongyang’s suspect nuclear program.
Stephen Bosworth left for Seoul on Saturday, and was then to travel to Tokyo and Beijing for discussions on the stalled six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
The new facility seen by Hecker must have been rapidly built, as it did not exist when international inspectors were thrown out of the impoverished, Stalinist state in April 2009, the Times said.
The daily speculated that Pyongyang, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006, must have had foreign help to be able to build the new plant so quickly and may have flouted strict UN sanctions.
It added that the White House had already begun on Saturday to brief allies and lawmakers about Hecker’s revelations, expecting a global debate about his findings.
Administration officials told the New York Times that they had been watching the area where the plant was said to be by satellite, but would not confirm if they knew of its existence previously.
Hecker, who used to direct the Los Alamos National Laboratory, had already revealed when he left North Korea that North Korean leaders claimed to be building an experimental light-water nuclear reactor to be completed by 2012.
His claims were backed by Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute, who told journalists in Washington on Tuesday that he had visited the Yongbyon nuclear complex where the North claims the light-water reactor is being built.
Pritchard told the Times on Saturday that he had heard the North boasting of another new facility, adding: “The intel agencies dropped the ball.”
The North quit the nuclear disarmament talks in April 2009 and staged a second nuclear test a month later. In recent months it has expressed conditional willingness to return to dialogue.
US President Barack Obama warned recently that North Korea must show “seriousness of purpose” before the six-party nuclear talks — involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States — can resume, saying he was not interested in simply “going through the motions.”
Some administration officials said Pyongyang might have decided to show off the new facility in a bid to use it as a bargaining chip with the US to try to win something in return for suspending or dismantling the new site.
“They had this capability well in hand and very probably have other facilities,” an administration official, who asked to remain anonymous, told the daily.
South Korea said last week that it was closely watching the site where North Korea tested an atomic bomb last year, but had no evidence yet that another test was being planned.
A foreign ministry spokesman made the comment in response to a report and satellite photos published by Jane’s Defence Weekly, which show work under way at the site in the northeastern province of North Hamkyong.
“No tangible evidence has been confirmed on whether or not the North is preparing for a third nuclear test,” the spokesman told AFP. “We have been closely monitoring the North’s nuclear facilities including Punggye-ri, and are closely sharing information with related countries.”