Seoul: The US special envoy for North Korea said on Monday that Pyongyang`s claim that it has a new uranium enrichment facility is provocative and disappointing but not a crisis or a surprise.
Stephen Bosworth`s comments, 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 says 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 analysing the (North`s) aspirations to produce enriched uranium for some time."
Kim also played down the facility, telling reporters: "It`s nothing new."
Top US military officials, however, warned that the facility could speed up the North`s ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it 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, said in a weekend report that he was taken during a recent trip to the North`s main Yongbyon atomic complex to a small, industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility.
Hecker, a former director of the US Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory who is regularly given rare 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. It`s also possible the North is 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.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, called North Korea "a very dangerous country”.
"I`ve been worried about North Korea and its potential nuclear capability for a long time," Mullen said on ABC`s "This Week." "This certainly gives that potential real life, very visible life that we all ought to be very, very focused on."
North Korea told Hecker it began construction on the centrifuge facility in April 2009 and finished only a few days before the scientist`s November 12 visit.
The facilities appeared to be primarily for civilian nuclear power, not for North Korea`s nuclear arsenal, Hecker said. 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.
Asked about stalled six-nation nuclear disarmament talks with the North, Bosworth said US officials "do not at all rule out the possibility of further engagement with North Korea”. But, he added, "I do not believe in engagement just for the sake of engagement or talking just for the sake of talking."
"I would never declare any process dead," Bosworth said of disarmament talks. "It`s still breathing, and I still think we have hope that we`re going to be able to resuscitate it."
New satellite images show construction under way at Yongbyon, which, combined with reports from Hecker and another American expert who recently travelled to the atomic complex, appear to show that the North is going forward with its stated plans to build a light-water nuclear power reactor.
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.
Experts say the North has yielded enough weaponised plutonium for at least a half dozen atomic bombs.
Hecker said the North Koreans emphasised during his trip that the centrifuge facility was operating; although he couldn`t verify that statement, he said "it was not inconsistent with what we saw”.