2003 July 21 Monday
North Korea May Be Operating Second Plutonium Processing Site

Krypton 85, a radioactive gas produced by plutonium reprocessing to make nuclear bomb material, has been detected by US sensors around North Korea in a pattern that suggests the gas is coming from somewhere other than the Yongbyon nuclear facility. This strongly suggests that North Korea is doing nuclear processing at some hidden site.

The Financial Times has learned that at least one Asian country has received intelligence that North Korea may be operating a secret nuclear plant, hidden underground to avoid detection by spy satellites.

Keep in mind: The US can not do an air strike on a facility whose location is unknown. If the location can be discovered but the facility is deep underground then current US bombs may not be able to destroy it anyhow.

The New York Times says the North Koreans have 11,000 to 15,000 deep underground industrial sites. Therefore there are many potential locations for the underground processing facility.

What concerns American, South Korean and Japanese analysts, however, is not simply the presence of the hard-to-detect gas but its source. While American satellites have been focused for years on North Korea's main nuclear plant, at Yongbyon, the computer analyses that track the gases as they are blown across the Korean Peninsula appeared to rule out the Yongbyon reprocessing plant as their origin. Instead, the analysis strongly suggests that the gas originated from a second, secret plant, perhaps buried in the mountains.

The North Koreans probably have several underground sites reprocessing plutonium or enriching uranium.

Diplomats are fussing over the news of a second nuclear facility.

The existence of a second nuclear plant in addition to Yongbyon, would raise the military and diplomatic stakes for America.

"This takes a very hard problem and makes it infinitely more complicated," an Asian official told the newspaper. "How can you verify that they have stopped a programme like this if you don't know where everything is?"

No, this latest news does not raise the stakes. Why only just now should we think that North Korea has been moving plutonium to other sites? Lots of vehicles seen leaving Yongbyon months ago were suspected to be carrying fuel rods or reprocessing equipment or both. Also, the North Koreans have long been suspected of operating uranium enrichment centrifuges at one or more unknown locations. So how is this latest report suddenly making the problem enormously worse? It isn't. This latest report helps to serve as a reminder of what we already had strong reason to believe: North Korea has secret nuclear weapons development sites that are very well hidden underground.

Jon Wolfsthal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says our intelligence information about North Korea is very limited.

How much confidence can anyone have about intelligence estimates regarding North Korea's nuclear programme, in light of the row over Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Unfortunately, for policymakers and the public alike, the answer is not much.

Overthrow of the Pyongyang regime is about the only certain way to put an end to the North Korean nuclear weapons development program.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 July 21 01:47 AM  Korea

Patrick said at July 24, 2003 8:04 PM:

If I were a NK security guy, I'd be trucking canisters of Krypton 85 to all sorts of obscure mountains and releasing regular puffs. Make the Yankees think there are 20 sites.

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