Joshua PollackParsing Enrichment in North Korea

Last week’s letter of the Permanent Representative of the DPRK to the UN Security Council President — see the KCNA translation — has stirred up a lot of excitement for what it says about uranium enrichment, or, to be precise, for what it doesn’t say about uranium enrichment.

The statement doesn’t mention nuclear weapons in connection with uranium enrichment.

It doesn’t mention highly enriched uranium.

It doesn’t mention vacuum centrifuges or an enrichment plant.

It says, “Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase.”

Whatever exactly that means, it doesn’t come as a bolt from the blue. Let’s review.

Four Statements, Not One

This statement is actually part of a series. On April 14, in its big kiss-off message responding to the Security Council Presidential Statement of April 13, the DPRK Foreign Ministry stated that “there is no need any more to have the six-party talks,” and added in that connection that the DPRK

will positively examine the construction of its light water reactor power plant in order to round off the structure of the Juche-based nuclear power industry.

On April 29, it was further announced that

the DPRK will make a decision to build a light water reactor power plant and start the technological development for ensuring self-production of nuclear fuel as its first process without delay.

On June 13, in response to UNSC Resolution 1874, it was further announced that

The process of uranium enrichment will be commenced.

Pursuant to the decision to build its own light-water reactor, enough success has been made in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide nuclear fuel to allow the experimental procedure.

This announcement kicked off a furor in the media, which unfortunately involved many inaccuracies.

So, here we are again with the September 4 statement:

Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase.

This doesn’t mention fuel for a LWR, but is a sequel to the June 13 statement, which does. With that context in mind, one could consider the reference to enrichment in the September 4 statement ambiguous at most, in contrast to the explicitly military nature of claims about the reprocessing of plutonium.

Fortunately, the news coverage has stayed closer to the text this time around (although not everywhere). Some expert commentary has been misleading. Call it sympathy for the devil, but reading comprehension seems to suffer in the vicinity of North Korean statements, which have a certain inkblot quality: prior beliefs are projected onto them quite freely.

Four Observations

A fresh reading of the four statements — April 14, April 29, June 13, and September 4 — reveals a few things.

First, whereas plutonium separation is described in terms of self-defense, deterrence, and “weaponization,” no overt military themes are present in the account of uranium enrichment.

Second, if the pace of enrichment work seems unrealistically rapid, the claims of progress also are modest, not going beyond the experimental, depending on how one reads the latest statement.

Third, no specific claims are made about the enrichment technology in question.

Fourth, there has been no opportunity to verify any of the claims about enrichment so far.

The bottom line: As of 2009, North Korea is finally claiming to be working on uranium enrichment. But their claims are limited, vague, and lack any overt connection to military applications. And they haven’t shown us anything to back up these claims just yet.

Resources for Wonks

Those wishing to delve further may want to have a look at these items:

At the Bulletin, Hui Zhang reviewed what’s known about North Korea’s acquisition efforts related to vacuum centrifuge technology (see: Assessing North Korea’s uranium enrichment capabilities, 18 June 2009).

Here at ACW, Geoff Forden produced a rough estimate of the cost of an enrichment plant based on Pakistan’s first generation of vacuum centrifuges (see: What Does Natanz Cost?, 27 June 2009).

Over at TotalWonKerr, I discussed the possible significance of the previous three North Korean statements about uranium enrichment (see: About That Enrichment Program, 6 July 2009).


  1. joel Wit (History)

    Joshua: thanks for an excellent analysis. Just whats needed given the breathless media reporting on this development. If I have one quibble, I think that it is certainly implied if not explicitly stated that whatever they are doing on this front is a countermeasure to sanctions. And that doesnt mean making fuel for LWRs. They have made that clearly implicit in the UN statement by lumping their enrichment activities with reprocessing as their two countermeasures. But otherwise, well done. Extremely useful.

  2. Nukem (History)

    Nice, balanced overview Joshua. It is tiring to see all the “sky is falling” pundits completely mis-analyze DPRK statements. Now if only you could do the same analysis for the Health Care and Climate Change Debates…

  3. archjr (History)

    Great post. Maybe someone can comment on the seemingly deliberate obscurity of DPRK statements on these matters. It seems to me it’s not a matter of English illiteracy, but more a calculated effort to keep everyone guessing, and it reminds me of the confusion surrounding what they said, to Jack Pritchard I think, that gave rise to concerns about enrichment in the first place.

  4. Major Lemon (History)

    Nothing the North Koreans say means very much but it’s surprising how quickly it gets around.

  5. bradley laing (History)

    What if the mention of uranium had something to do with the Box On the Eurphates? “Hi! You caught us red handed proliferating, didn’t you? Well, here’s a little hint about what else we can do, if you push us…”

  6. bradley laing (History)

    The US has moved to freeze the assets of two North Korean companies in an effort to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear development.

    The General Bureau of Atomic Energy and the Korea Tangun Trading Corp were both deemed to be supporting North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programme.

    North Korea says it is in the final stages of uranium enrichment, bringing it closer to making a nuclear weapo…

    —from BBC website, 7:13 pm eastern time

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