The U.S. special envoy for North Korea said Pyongyang's claim of a new uranium enrichment facility is provocative and disappointing but not a crisis or a surprise.
Stephen Bosworth's comments Monday, following a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, came as the United States and the North's neighbours scrambled to deal with Pyongyang's revelation to a visiting American nuclear scientist of a highly sophisticated, modern enrichment operation that had what the North said are 2,000 recently completed centrifuges.
"This is obviously a disappointing announcement. It is also another in a series of provocative moves" by North Korea, Bosworth said. "That being said, this is not a crisis. We are not surprised by this. We have been watching and analyzing the [North's] aspirations to produce enriched uranium for some time."
Kim also played down the facility, telling reporters: "It's nothing new."
Top U.S. military officials, however, warned that it could speed up the North's ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons. South Korea's defence minister told legislators Monday that Seoul will discuss the possibility of having the U.S. bring tactical nuclear weapons back into the country.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said the facility could enable North Korea to build "a number" of nuclear devices beyond the handful it is presumed to have already assembled. Gates was speaking in Bolivia, where he is attending a regional defence conference.
The American scientist Siegfried Hecker posted a report over the weekend saying that during a recent trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex, he was taken to a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.
Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory who is regularly given glimpses of the North's secretive nuclear program, said the North Korean program had been built in secret and with remarkable speed.
It wasn't immediately clear why the North chose to reveal the previously hidden facility. It could be a ploy to win concessions in nuclear talks or an attempt to bolster leader Kim Jong-il's apparent heir. The North could also be serious about producing nuclear electricity.
Regardless, it provides a new set of worries for the Obama administration, which has shunned direct negotiations with North Korea following its nuclear and missile tests last year and in the wake of an international finding that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.
The United States has been working with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea since 2003 to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear programs through a framework known as the six-party talks.
A 'grave problem'
Bosworth, who plans to visit China on Tuesday, travelled later Monday to Tokyo for discussions with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara.
"If what North Korea is claiming is really true, it's an extremely grave problem," Maehara said at the outset of his meeting with Bosworth. "We must respond calmly, and will step up our co-operation, particularly among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea."
North Korea told Hecker it began construction on the centrifuge facility in April 2009 and finished only a few days before the scientist's Nov. 12 visit.
The facility appeared to be primarily for civilian nuclear power, not for North Korea's atomic arsenal, Hecker said. But, he said, it "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel."
Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make nuclear bombs, in addition to its known plutonium-based program. At low levels, uranium can be used in power reactors, but at higher levels it can be used in nuclear weapons.