Jeffrey LewisCan North Korea Produce UF6?

Picking up comments by Ambassador Hill at the Foreign Press Center (still not on the website), Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler report in the Washington Post that the Bush Administration plans “to push North Korea to begin disclosing the extent and locations of its secret development programs right away to test the sincerity of Pyongyang’s commitment to give up its pursuit of atomic weapons.”

Told you so. North Korea’s uranium program is agenda item numero uno:

The Bush administration plans to press North Korea to prove its commitment to the agreement by publicly acknowledging the existence of its uranium enrichment program and to eventually produce a full declaration of all of its nuclear weapons and programs, officials said. Eventually, a timeline of reciprocal steps would be developed, but probably not in November.


The officials said they want North Korea to follow the model of Libya, which voluntarily gave up its incomplete nuclear development program, rather than set up another Iraq, with inspectors scouring every cave looking for it.

“It is not our intention that we—that is, the collective ‘we’, the international community—would go into the DPRK and begin a sort of Easter egg hunt for weapons and for programs,” Hill said, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea’s formal name. “We expect the DPRK as part of its voluntary commitments to cooperate with us.”

I seem to recall some wayward Wonk warning that “A serious problem may arise if North Korea’s programs are less extensive than US intelligence currently believes. Then US policymakers will face a repeat of the pre-Iraq scenario: Do you believe the North Koreans or your own lying eyes?”


Yesterday, Paul suggested the IC knows Scottish Football Association about North Korea’s gas centrifuge program.

I promised to write a little about North Korea’s ability to produce uranium hexafluoride.

The question of a North Korean UF6 capability arose after reports that uranium in Libya was linked to North Korea.

The possibility that North Korea might have sold UF6 to Libya raises the question of whether Pyongyang has crossed the Bush Administration’s red line on nonprolfieration. Recently, Mark Hibbs suggested Iran might “ring up” North Korea for help in converting uranium.

Articles in the Washington Post and New York Times suggested that Libya’s UF6 was linked to North Korea by two indpendent scientific tests: One found the uranium inside the casks might have been mined in North Korea.

A second test suggested the presence of plutonium contaminatiton from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear site on the outside of the casks.

North Korea produces UF4 at the Yongbyon Fuel Fabrication facility (see below), which makes the site a likely place to site UF6 production lines. Finding traces of plutonium from Yongbyon, then, provided a circumstantial link between the cask and the Fuel Fabrication Facility.

All this is interesting, but circumstantial. Can North Korea make UF6?

Generally, the answer is thought to be “no.” In a good bit of reporting, Paul confirmed that North Korea, at least as of October 2002, North Korea did not possess a facility for producing uranium hexafluoride:

North Korea has indigenous supplies of natural uranium, but whether it can produce uranium hexafluoride is unclear. A former State Department official familiar with North Korea’s nuclear programs told Arms Control Today Feb. 22 that, as of October 2002, there was no evidence that North Korea possessed a facility for producing uranium hexafluoride. North Korea does have a facility for producing uranium tetrafluoride, a uranium compound that is then converted to uranium hexafluoride, that was frozen under the Agreed Framework, the official said.

The case that North Korea manufactured UF6 at Yongbyon before October 2002—the UF6 shipment to Libya occurred in 2001—is weak. IAEA Inspectors were present at Yongbyon though much of 2002. Although I haven’t been able to confirm the environmental sampling conducted by inspectors through 2002, a Western centrifuge expert told Mark Hibbs “If (the IAEA) did any environmental monitoring in the neighborhood of a centrifuge plant and (DPRK) UF6 management wasn’t absolutely watertight, they would eventually find it.” [Mark Hibbs, DPRK Enrichment Not Far Along, Some Intelligence Data Suggest, Nucleonics Week 43:43, October 24, 2002, p.1]

Citing uncertain sources, the IISS dossier on North Korea’s nuclear programs, suggested in 2004 the fluorine lines were badly corroded and in need of repair.

Whether North Korea has repaired the lines and acquired the capability to produce UF6 since 2002 is less clear, though the evidence is not very convincing.

In September 2003, Western officials told Mark Hibbs that North Korea was “poised to begin production of UF6 at Yongbyon” citing recent satellite images of Yongbyong showing “a lot of materials there which are stacked up in drums…” [Mark Hibbs, “DPRK poised to embark upon UF6 production at Yongbyon,” Nuclear Fuel 28:18, September 1, 2003, p.3]

Two years later, the story doesn’t appear to have advanced much—analysts recently told Hibbs “the DPRK may also have learned how to produce clean … UF6” at the site” without explanation.

In Paul’s most recent article, a former State Department official describes the intelligence on as “pretty sketchy”—which strikes me about right. Paul also reports that knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials offered “differing assessments” in published accounts and interviews with Arms Control Today.

I doubt that North Korea could produce “clean” UF6, given the failures of recent off-the-shelf (Libya) and indigenous (Iran) efforts.

Despite all this, most articles raise the possibility of a hidden UF6 facility somewhere in North Korea. Many hawks seem wedded to this idea, which brings us to the point: What happens when North Korea does not declare a secret UF6 production facility?


  1. John M. (History)

    The transcript is now available. Unfortunately, Ambassador Hill gave no hints about how insistent the US would be in demanding specific details about a UE program, and no member of the press corps thought to bring up this issue. More generally, the transcript reveals Hill prepared to engage in some serious 2-way diplomatic discussions with North Korea. He clearly indicates that if in future talks the North Korean side is found to be forthcoming, the US is going to have to offer up something in return fairly immediately, an encouraging gesture and high-profile words to be held to by all the other parties to the talks.