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Multiple Uranium Enrichment Facilities Suspected in N. Korea


This satellite image provided by Space Imaging Asia shows the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, located north of Pyongyang, North Korea (2002 file photo)

This satellite image provided by Space Imaging Asia shows the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, located north of Pyongyang, North Korea (2002 file photo)

Analysts are expressing little surprise about the revelation North Korea apparently has multiple facilities to enrich uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

South Korea's defense ministry Friday revealed that intelligence satellites have detected additional facilities in North Korea where it suspects work is being done to produce weapons-grade uranium.

A South Korean senior official told reporters North Korea's uranium enrichment activities appear to be proceeding.

The senior official -- who the ministry asked not be more specifically identified -- explained uranium enrichment "facilities and activities have been identified based on joint analysis by South Korea and the United States" of various satellite imagery intelligence.

The defense ministry says the images would not be publicly released.

A vague reference to North Korea's uranium enrichment program is also contained in the "North Korean strategic weapons" section of South Korea's annual defense white paper (released Friday).

North Korea in 2010 allowed a team of U.S. scientists to tour one such uranium facility at Yongbyon. Other similar operations have been suspected. But no government, until now, has made a public statement acknowledging evidence of their existence.

Georgetown University visiting professor Balbina Hwang served as a U.S. State Department senior adviser to then-ambassador Chris Hill who headed Washington's delegation to the now stalled six-nation talks on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.

She does not see the revelation as a game changer.

"Countries have been operating under this assumption. And it was probably more than an assumption, in other words, that they had some sort of evidence," she said. "And it does nothing to change the U.S. attitude or probably the new government of South Korea's attitude towards North Korea."

South Korean voters on Wednesday elected Park Geun-hye to succeed another member of the conservative Saenuri (New Frontier) Party, President Lee Myung-bak.

Uranium enrichment gives North Korea an alternative to its plutonium-based program to make nuclear bombs. The North is already believed to have 40 kilograms of plutonium - enough for several weapons.

In 2009, North Korea expelled personnel of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, from the Yongbyon facility.

That occurred five months after the last round of international talks were held about moving North Korea towards abandoning its nuclear programs. The six-way discussions had involved both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia.

North Korea, on December 12, launched a three-stage rocket which deployed, for the first time, an object into orbit.

Pyongyang hailed the event as a mission to put a peaceful earth observation satellite into space.

But the international community condemned the launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korea from working on ballistic missile technology.

The U.N. Security Council is expected soon to impose additional sanctions on North Korea for conducting the provocative launch.
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