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US Official: North Korea Continues to Destabilize Region

A visitor stands by a television program showing unused nuclear fuel rods on the shelves of a warehouse at North Korea's main nuclear plant in Yongbyon, North Korea (File Photo)
A visitor stands by a television program showing unused nuclear fuel rods on the shelves of a warehouse at North Korea's main nuclear plant in Yongbyon, North Korea (File Photo)
William Ide

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says the release of a new report that North Korea has made strides in its nuclear program validates concerns about Pyongyang's efforts to destabilize the region.  

Siegfried Hecker, an American nuclear expert who recently visited North Korea, says that he was shown a new facility with more than 1,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium.  Hecker says he was stunned by its sophistication and that it had been built with remarkable speed.

Hecker says North Korean officials told him that the facility was producing low-grade uranium for a new reactor.

Speaking Sunday on ABC television's "This Week" program, the U.S. top military officer, Navy Admiral Michael Mullen, warned that North Korea's development of nuclear weapons is a major concern for Asia and the world. "This validates a long standing concern that we've had with respect to North Korea and its enrichment of uranium.  It also continues to validate [concerns about] a country that is led by a dictator who constantly desires to destabilize the region.  And he's done that again with the development of this capability as well," he said.

Mullen said news of the new facility shows that Kim Jong Il continues to be "predictable in his unpredictability."  The admiral suggested that constructing the nuclear complex might be an effort by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il to install his son, Kim Jong Un, as the country's next leader. "Not too long ago, he [i.e., Kim Jong Il] killed 46 South Korean sailors.  He has over time continued to destabilize this region.  And, in fact, I also believe that this has to do with the succession plan for his son," he said.

Earlier this year, an international team of investigators led by South Korea concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship - the Cheonan.  Pyongyang has denied involvement in the destruction of the patrol boat and the deaths of 46 South Korean sailors.

News about the new nuclear site comes as a private Washington-based security firm, the Institute for Science and International Security, released satellite pictures last week that it says show new construction underway at North Korea's disabled Yongbyon nuclear facility.

Jack Pritchard, a former U.S diplomat who recently visited the site, says North Korean officials told him that they are building an experimental light water nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

Light water reactors typically are used for generating electricity.  But analysts note that the plant could also be used to enrich uranium - for use as fuel for a nuclear reactor or to make atomic weapons.

Last year, North Korea broke off the six-party talks on ending its nuclear weapons program.

U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen says participants in the talks - South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States - need to convince Kim Jong Il to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. "We have to continue to bring pressure on him specifically.  Those in the region in particular, the six-party talk countries - we all we have to continue to do that," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, arrived in South Korea on Sunday in an effort to restart the stalled nuclear talks. "I'm on a very quick trip through the region consulting with our partners on next steps in the process of negotiating with the North Koreans," he said.

After Seoul, Bosworth is scheduled to visit Tokyo and Beijing before returning to Washington this week.

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