Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that a report by a visiting American scientist that North Korea has built a new plant to enrich uranium lends “very visible life” to his simmering worries about that country’s nuclear ambitions.
He said that American leaders have long assumed that North Korea continued “to head in the direction of additional nuclear weapons,” and a report in The New York Times on Sunday that Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was recently allowed to view a new and sophisticated plant for enriching uranium bolstered that assumption.
“This validates a long-standing concern we’ve had with regard to North Korea and its enrichment of uranium,” he said in an interview on ABC’s “This Week With Christiane Amanpour.”
The new plant, whose modernistic technology, rich collection of centrifuges and up-to-date control room astonished Dr. Hecker, did not exist in the spring of 2009, just before international weapons inspectors were thrown out of the country. While North Korea has already tested two atomic bombs and produced other nuclear weapons, those were manufactured from the spent fuel harvested from a nuclear reactor, not from enriched uranium.
North Korea insists the uranium is intended for a reactor that would generate electricity. American officials, however, believe the Communist regime there is focused on building more nuclear weapons and fear that without any capacity to inspect, they cannot know for certain.
North Korea is already being punished for flouting inspections with sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. The Obama administration’s new verbal campaign may be intended to pressure China, North Korea’s most important patron.
However, Admiral Mullen did not express confidence that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, would respond to new pressures.
“He blows hot and cold,” Admiral Mullen said, adding later that the North Korean leader was “predictable in his unpredictability.” “He moves in a certain direction and then reverts, and I certainly would see him in his reversion mode at this particular point in time.”
Admiral Mullen also sought to prop up President Obama’s effort to secure ratification of an arms control treaty with Russia — the so-called New Start — by a two-thirds majority of the United States Senate. The prospects of knitting together that majority seemed to collapse last week when Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chief Republican negotiator in the Senate on the arms issue, said he would block a vote on the pact in the current lame-duck session of Congress.
The treaty would force both countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and resume inspections that lapsed last year for the first time since the Cold War.
Clearly targeting his remarks to Republican misgivings about a new treaty, Admiral Mullen said he was “completely comfortable with where we are militarily” and feared only that without a treaty the United States cannot verify Russian claims about paring its arsenal. He called ratification of a treaty an urgent “national security issue of great significance.”
“We’re close to one year without any ability to verify what’s going on in Russia,” he said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” reinforced his position, noting that Russia has “thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at the United States,” and that from the Reagan administration on, arms controls treaties “have been overwhelmingly passed.”
Both Admiral Mullen and Mrs. Clinton tried to clarify how long the Obama administration intends to keep American troops in Afghanistan. They said that American units would slowly turn over leadership in combat operations to the Afghan army starting in the spring, but the goal is not to cede that combat role completely until the end of 2014. Afterwards, Americans would continue to advise, equip and train the Afghan army, both said.