x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

North Korea boasts of its nuclear capabilities

Nuclear-armed North Korea boasted today about the sophistication of its new uranium enrichment plant, a facility which has raised fears the regime wants to make more fuel for atomic bombs.

Nuclear-armed North Korea boasted today about the sophistication of its new uranium enrichment plant, a facility which has raised fears the regime wants to make more fuel for atomic bombs.

Pyongyang issued its first report on the plant, which it says is for peaceful purposes, a week after launching a deadly artillery strike against the South and while a massive US-South Korean naval exercise was in full swing.

World powers fear that the volatile regime of Kim Jong-Il, which has twice tested atomic bombs, is seeking to produce weapons-grade uranium on top of the plutonium it already has to use in a game of nuclear brinkmanship.

In a newspaper editorial carried by the official KCNA news agency, Pyongyang highlighted its nuclear accomplishments but insisted that a reactor it is building, and the fuel for it, are for civilian energy use only.

"We are actively building a light water reactor and, in order to meet the demand, we are operating a modern uranium enrichment system with many thousands of centrifuges," the KCNA report said.

Earlier this month the regime showed off its new Yongbyon uranium enrichment facilities near the capital to a visiting US nuclear scientist, who called the plant with 2,000 centrifuges "ultra-modern" and "stunning".

"These facilities appear to be designed primarily for civilian nuclear power, not to boost North Korea's military capability," wrote the scientist, Siegfried Hecker, but he also warned the facilities "could be readily converted to produce highly-enriched uranium bomb fuel."

Today North Korea insisted that its reactor - which Hecker described as being in the early stages of construction - and the enrichment facility to provide fuel is intended only to meet power demand.

Impoverished North Korea, aside from lacking enough food for its people, also suffers from chronic electricity shortages. Satellite photos at night show the country as a dark patch next to the well-lit South.

"Our nuclear energy development, which is for peaceful purposes and to solve the electricity demand, will be more active," KCNA added, citing an editorial from the ruling communist party's newspaper the Rodong Sinmun.

"Using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is a right that cannot be denied developing countries. Every country in the world should practise that right."

Many observers suspect more sinister motives.

For North Korea, sharing news on its nuclear programme "is another attempt to create an international crisis, attract the global spotlight and demonstrate its military prowess to the world," said Professor Kim Tae-Hyun of South Korea's Chung-Ang University Graduate School of International Studies.

North Korea - under a pact reached in six-nation disarmament talks with South Korea China, Japan, Russia, and the United States - in 2008 shut down an ageing reactor that had produced plutonium for its weapons drive.

But Pyongyang abandoned the six-party talks process in April 2009 and a month later staged its second atomic bomb test. In September last year it announced that it had reached the final stage of enriching uranium.

Tensions on the peninsula have spiked over the past week, since North Korea rained shells and rockets on a small South Korean border island, killing four people, wounding 18 and destroying two dozen houses.

Pyongyang has reacted furiously to the joint US-South Korean naval manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea, which are intended as a show of force to the North following the artillery barrage.

It says the naval drills are bringing the region closer to "the brink of war".