President Barack Obama has hastily dispatched his North Korea envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to the region today. He's schedule to arrive in Seoul tonight, ahead of meetings in South Korea, Japan and China this coming week, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Bosworth's last-minute rush to East Asia comes after a report Saturday in The New York Times quoting Siegfried Hecker, a Stanford professor and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as describing a trip he took to North Korea nine days ago. Among the sites his North Korean minders allowed him to visit was a laboratory previously unknown to the West, where local scientists said they were processing uranium to generate electricity -- but which could also be used to produce material for nuclear weapons.
Hecker told the Times that he was "stunned" by the sophistication of the plant, where "hundreds and hundreds" of centrifuges installed in a gutted old factory were operated from "an ultra-modern control room." In his full report posted on the website of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation, Hecker also writes that the uranium enrichment facilities he saw "could be readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) bomb fuel."
"The first look through the windows of the observation deck into the two long high-bay areas was stunning," Hecker wrote. "Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us."
The facilities are part of North Korea's main nuclear-research site and power plant in Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of the capital Pyongyang. The whole complex's existence has been widely known in the West, but the specific laboratory Hecker described is new.
What's most alarming to the Obama administration is that American experts know that particular lab didn't exist in April 2009, the last time U.S. and international inspectors were allowed to visit North Korea's nuclear sites. That means the sophisticated plant was built quickly -- raising the possibility that Western experts had underestimated Pyongyang's capability to expand its nuclear activities quickly.
The U.S. and its allies have long known that North Korea harbored nuclear facilities, but Pyongyang has previously sought to obfuscate the extent of its activities, so that their scope was largely unknown. It's unclear why they granted Hecker access on his Nov. 12 visit.
During his visit, Hecker writes that he asked one of his guides, a top North Korean nuclear official, what he thought about the idea that the sophisticated nature of the plant they were touring might fuel Western speculation about the North's nuclear activities. "They can think what they want," Hecker quoted the official as saying.
A senior Obama administration official told CNN that North Korea's new facility represents "yet another provocative act of defiance and, if true, contradicts its own pledges and commitments." Bosworth and other State Department experts are heading to Asia immediately to "begin to coordinate on a response to this news," the official said.
"We have long suspected North Korea of having this kind of capability, and we have regularly raised it with them directly and with our partners in this effort. North Korea has tried to use missiles and nuclear tests to threaten the international community and extract concessions," the unnamed official was quoted as saying.