North Korea is forging ahead with work to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, which could add to its atomic arsenal and raise the risk it will sell nuclear know-how abroad, a study said Friday.
The report published by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) came after warnings from South Korea that “North Korea’s nuclear threat has progressed at a rapid pace and reached a very alarming level.”
South Korea also said this week that the North is restoring facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the source of weapons-grade plutonium in the past.
In the report titled “Taking Stock: North Korea’s Uranium Enrichment Programme,” authors David Albright and Paul Brannan wrote that North Korea is developing centrifuges to enrich uranium.
The programme is an “avenue for North Korea to increase the number and sophistication of its nuclear weapons and for it to proliferate to others who seek to build their own centrifuge programmes,” the authors wrote.
The ISIS report, based on procurement data obtained by governments and information from Pakistan, said the uranium programme’s status and location of the plants was unclear.
There was enough information to support “that North Korea has moved beyond laboratory-scale work and has the capability to build, at the very least, a pilot-scale gas centrifuge plant,” the authors added.
But the report said the procurements do not suggest that Pyongyang is able to build a plant with 3,000 centrifuges, which are needed to produce enough enriched uranium for about two nuclear bombs a year.
“The most effective way to end the threats posed by North Korea’s centrifuge programme is through negotiations, even though that route looks currently difficult,” the report said.
Six-party talks involving North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States had previously secured North Korean pledges to give up its nuclear programmes, but Pyongyang stormed out in April last year.
In the meantime, the report said, Washington and its partners must tighten existing UN sanctions to slow down North Korea’s centrifuge programme and make sure Pyongyang does not sell centrifuge, reactor or other nuclear technology.
While saying China has acted in support of UN sanctions against North Korea, the authors said Beijing “is not applying enough resources to detect and stop North Korea’s nuclear trade.”
It said North Korea obtains nuclear technology for its uranium enrichment programme by either buying directly from China or using it as a transhipment point.
Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said he was aware of the report, but could not answer in great detail.
The study “really doesn’t change our basic position which is that we call on North Korea to denuclarise and live up to its international commitments,” Toner told reporters.