This is news:
North Korea showed a visiting American nuclear scientist earlier this month a vast new facility it secretly and rapidly built to enrich uranium, confronting the Obama administration with the prospect that the country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb.
Whether the calculated revelation is a negotiating ploy by North Korea or a signal that it plans to accelerate its weapons program even as it goes through a perilous leadership change, it creates a new challenge for President Obama at a moment when his program for gradual, global nuclear disarmament appears imperiled at home and abroad. The administration hurriedly began to brief allies and lawmakers on Friday and Saturday — and braced for an international debate over the repercussions.
The scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a Stanford professor who previously directed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said in an interview that he had been “stunned” by the sophistication of the new plant, where he saw “hundreds and hundreds” of centrifuges that had just been installed in a recently gutted building that had housed an aging fuel fabrication center, and that were operated from what he called “an ultra-modern control room.” The North Koreans claimed 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running, he said.
American officials know that the plant did not exist in April 2009, when the last Americans and international inspectors were thrown out of the country. The speed with which it was built strongly suggests that the impoverished, isolated country, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006, had foreign help and evaded strict new United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed to punish its rejection of international controls.
The summary touches on the interesting bits, which to my mind are the questions of foreign assistance, North Korean motivation, and US intelligence gathering capabilities. On the first point, if it’s determined that North Korea had substantial help (and from this initial report it appears likely), then either the Proliferation Security Initiative has serious holes, or China is signaling lack of interest in constraining North Korean weapons development. On the second, it’s hard to say what precisely the point of revealing the plant is beyond a demonstration of 1) North Korean resistance, and 2) the desire for additional US economic assistance. I wonder whether North Korea is picking up cues from the deterioration of security relations between the PRC and the US/Japan, and has decided to take advantage of those tensions. I’m also kind of curious what role Russia could play in this. Finally, if we really didn’t have any idea that a large enrichment facility was being built over the course of a year in one of the most surveilled countries in the world, it really opens up some serious questions about our intelligence gathering capabilities. To my mind, it also reaffirms the utility of on the ground inspections.
Finally, the chances that conservatives will use the North Korean revelation as ammunition against the wholly-unrelated New START are roughly 100%.