What I Found in North Korea

Pyongyang’s Plutonium Is No Longer the Only Problem

A cooling tower in North Korea being demolished as a sign of commitment to a nuclear deal, Pyongyang, North Korea, June 27, 2008. Kyodo / Reuters

On November 12, during my most recent visit to the Yongbyon nuclear complex, North Korean scientists showed me and my colleagues, John W. Lewis and Robert Carlin, a small, recently completed, industrial-scale uranium-enrichment facility and an experimental light-water reactor (LWR) under construction. 

I was stunned by the sight of 2,000 centrifuges in two cascade halls and an ultramodern control room. But it was not until the long drive back to Pyongyang that the political implications of these findings hit home. It will be more important than ever to limit Pyongyang's nuclear progress and calm tensions on the Korean peninsula. This is particularly true in light of the clash in the Yellow Sea between the two Koreas late last month.

Although I and other nonproliferation experts had long believed that North Korea possessed a parallel uranium-enrichment program -- and there was ample evidence for such a belief -- I was amazed by its scale and sophistication. Instead of finding a few dozen first-generation centrifuges, we saw rows of advanced centrifuges, apparently fully operational. Our hosts told us that construction of the centrifuge facility began in April 2009 and was completed a few days before our arrival. That is not credible, however, given the requirements for specialty materials and components, as well as the difficulty of making the centrifuge cascades work smoothly. 

How North Korea managed to obtain all these materials is a troubling question for the global nonproliferation regime. Indeed, there is no evidence that North Korea can produce high-strength aluminum or steel alloys on its own, or that ring magnets, bearings, and vacuum valves were manufactured indigenously. 

The most likely scenario is that the equipment was built and brought into operation over many years at a different location and then moved into the new facility. The items needed to manufacture the centrifuges were likely obtained through North Korea's complex and far-reaching procurement network -- in which Pakistan likely played a significant role. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted in his memoirs that the Pakistani

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