SEOUL, South Korea (AP/TheBlaze) – North Korea's claim of a new, highly sophisticated uranium enrichment facility could be a ploy to win concessions in nuclear talks or an attempt to bolster leader Kim Jong Il's apparent heir. But whatever the reason for the revelation, which a seasoned American nuclear scientist called "stunning," it provides a new set of worries for the Obama administration, which is sending its special envoy on North Korea for talks with officials in South Korea, Japan and China this week.
The scientist, Siegfried Hecker, said in a report posted Saturday that he was taken during a recent trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex to a small industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility. It had 2,000 recently completed centrifuges, he said, and the North told him it was producing low-enriched uranium meant for a new reactor.
Hecker, a former director of the U.S. Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory who is regularly given rare glimpses of the North's secretive nuclear program, said the program had been built in secret and with remarkable speed.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said uranium enrichment activities would violate U.N. resolutions and agreements by North Korea over its nuclear program.
"From my perspective, it's North Korea continuing on a path which is destabilizing for the region. It confirms or validates the concern we've had for years about their enriching uranium," Mullen, the top U.S. military officer, said on CNN's "State of the Union."
The Obama administration 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.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates says he doesn't believe the new facility is part of a peaceful nuclear energy program, adding that the uranium enrichment facility may be used for bomb-making.
Gates, traveling in Bolivia for a regional defense conference, also says North Korea has developed longer-range missiles that might deliver nuclear weapons.
North Korea told Hecker it began construction on the centrifuges in April 2009 and finished only a few days before the scientist's Nov. 12 visit.
Hecker said his first glimpse of the North's new centrifuges was "stunning."
"Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges, all neatly aligned and plumbed below us," wrote Hecker, a Stanford University professor.
Hecker described the control room as "astonishingly modern," writing that, unlike other North Korean facilities, it "would fit into any modern American processing facility."
The facilities appeared to be primarily for civilian nuclear power, not for North Korea's nuclear arsenal, Hecker said. He saw no evidence of continued plutonium production at Yongbyon. But, he said, the uranium enrichment facilities "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel."
Uranium enrichment would give the North a second way to make atomic 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. Hecker's findings were first reported in The New York Times.
U.S. nuclear envoy Stephen Bosworth's trip to Asia for talks on North Korea comes as new satellite images show construction under way at Yongbyon. That, combined with reports from Hecker and another American expert who recently traveled to the atomic complex, appear to show that the North is keeping its pledge to build a nuclear power reactor.
North Korea vowed in March to build a light-water reactor using its own nuclear fuel. Hecker, and Jack Pritchard, a former U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea, have said that construction has begun.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the Seoul-based University of North Korean Studies, said the North's uranium disclosure is meant to force the United States back into nuclear negotiations.
The disclosure, Yang said, also is aimed at a domestic audience during the succession process. "The North wants to muster loyalty among military generals by showing them the North will continue to bolster its nuclear deterrent and uphold its military-first policy," Yang said.
Light-water reactors are ostensibly for civilian energy purposes, but such a power plant would give the North a reason to enrich uranium. While light-water reactors are considered less prone to misuse than heavy-water reactors, once the process of uranium enrichment is mastered, it is relatively easy to enrich further to weapons-grade levels.
North Korea said last year it was in the final stage of enriching uranium, sparking worries that the country may add uranium-based weapons to its stockpile of bombs made from plutonium. Experts say the North has yielded enough weaponized plutonium for at least a half dozen atomic bombs.
Uranium can be enriched in relatively inconspicuous factories that are better able to evade spy satellite detection, according to U.S. and South Korean experts. Uranium-based bombs may also work without requiring test explosions like the two carried out by North Korea in 2006 and 2009 for plutonium-based weapons.
Hecker said the North Koreans emphasized that the centrifuge facility was operating; although he couldn't verify that statement, he said "it was not inconsistent with what we saw."
"The only hope" for dealing with the North's nuclear program "appears to be engagement," he wrote, calling a military attack "out of the question" and more sanctions "likewise a dead end."
Many questions are still unanswered about North Korea's nuclear program, Hecker wrote, including whether the North is really pursuing nuclear electricity, whether it's abandoning plutonium production, how it obtained such sophisticated centrifuge technology, and why it's revealing the facilities now.
"One thing is certain," he said. "These revelations will cause a political firestorm."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.