Jeffrey LewisJapanese Vacuum Pump at Yongbyon

The Japanese press is in a fit about a Japanese-made vacuum pump that turned up in North Korea.

Apparently, the IAEA found the pump at Yongbyon, leading to police raids on two companies in Japan, according to the Daily Yomiuri, Kyodo News and the Daily Mainichi.

The Daily Yomiuri has the most detailed coverage:

The company that exported the pumps, Nakano Corp., has been shipping vacuum pumps to Taiwan universities and labs for about 20 years. Hiroshi Nakano, the president of the Minato Ward, Tokyo-based company, said Wednesday, “I wasn’t aware this was a violation of the foreign trade control law.”

“We never conceal the names of the items we export,” the 66-year-old company chief said. “I thought [the pumps] would be used for automobile development or for some research project. I was surprised to hear that the products we exported in 2003 were in North Korea and were being used at a nuclear facility.”

Tokyo Vacuum, based in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, has designed and manufactured vacuum products and sold them to government and university research labs and electronics makers since 1992. According to a private credit research company, Tokyo Vacuum has about 10 employees.

Yomiuri reports, however, that the pumps were used “for uranium enrichment.” I think that is probably incorrect, given that the components were found at Yongbyon. The Daily Mainichi claims the “pump was used in the plutonium extraction process.” That’s probably not quite right either.

If I had to guess, I would assume the pump was part of the vacuum system at the Fuel Fabrication Facility that was disabled under the current deal.

Although the Japanese press is appalled, my guess is that the various illicitly acquired components of Yongbyon probably come from dozens of countries in Europe and Asia. This is the seedy side of globalization.

If you are interested, Robin Wright and Joby Warrick had a nice article in the Post about illicit North Korea procurement efforts.


  1. MTC (History)

    Dr. Lewis –

    The uranium/plutonium confusion is in the original Japanese version of the Yomiuri report as well.

    In the report published in the Tokyo Shimbun

    authorities justify their raids on the manufacturer and the trading company as investigations of possible violations of the Export Control Law. Since the pumps could be (“could be”, not “were”) used in uranium enrichment facilities, the manufacturer and the trading company should have applied for special export licenses.

    It looks like the Yomiuri authors or editors just got ahead of themselves on this story.

    As for the Mainichi report, both the translation and the original are non-committal on the use of the pumps, noting only that there is “an additional suspicion” ( utagai mo aru ) that they were somehow used in the plutonium extraction process.

    FYI – the website of Tokyo Vacuum is still up, at:

    The left hand button lets you peruse the company’s product line.

  2. Christhian

    I am definitely not a technical person. Maybe someone can help me with this.

    The Additional Protocol makes reference to vacuum pumps in point 5.4.3 of Annex II:

    “5.4.3. Vacuum systems

    (a) Especially designed or prepared large vacuum manifolds, vacuum
    headers and vacuum pumps having a suction capacity of 5 m3/min (175 ft3/min) or more.
    (b) Vacuum pumps especially designed for service in UF6-bearing atmospheres made of, or lined with, aluminium, nickel, or alloys bearing more than 60% nickel. These pumps may be either rotary or positive, may have displacement and fluorocarbon seals, and may have special working fluids present.”

    Part 2 of the NSG Guidelines make reference to vacuum pumps too:

    “3.A.8. Vacuum pumps having all of the following characteristics:

    a. Input throat size equal to or greater than 380 mm;
    b. Pumping speed equal to or greater than 15 m3/s; and
    c. Capable of producing an ultimate vacuum better than 13.3 mPa.

    Technical Notes:

    1. The pumping speed is determined at the measurement point with nitrogen gas or air.
    2. The ultimate vacuum is determined at the input of the pump with the input of the pump blocked off.”

    The question is: Are the pumps referenced in these documents for use in enrichment only? Or they could be used anywhere in the fuel cycle?

  3. Arnold Evans (History)


    Text of 5+1 package to Iran

    In order to seek a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution of the Iranian nuclear issue consistent with relevant UN Security Council resolutions and building further upon the proposal presented to Iran in June 2006, which remains on the table, the elements below are proposed as topics for negotiations between China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, joined by the High Representative of the European Union, as long as Iran verifiably suspends its enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, pursuant to OP 15 and OP’ 19(a) of UNSCR 1803. In the perspective of such negotiations, we also expect Iran to heed the requirements of the IJNSC and the IAEA. For their part, China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union High Representative state their readiness:
    to recognize Iran’s right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in conformity with its NPT obligations;
    to treat Iran’s nuclear program in the same manner as that of any Non-nuclear Weapon State Party to the NPT once international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is restored.

    Two thoughts from me: 1) this is still an offer for negotiations from the West in exchange for tangible concessions from Iran. 2) there is no objective measure that international confidence has been restored, except that a resolution claiming so survives an arbitrary US veto.

    The “we’ll offer talks about concessions if Iran makes tangible concessions” conception of negotiations has remained unchanged at least since the August 2005 offer which was roundly and publicly condemned by Iran and some Western analysts as insulting.