SEOUL | The top U.S. envoy to North Korea on Monday said revelations that Pyongyang had made rapid advances in enriching uranium were the latest in a series of provocations over the past 20 years, but denied it was a crisis.
Stephen Bosworth's comments, after a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, came as the United States and the North's neighbors scrambled to come to terms with Pyongyang's revelation to a visiting American nuclear scientist of what has been described as 2,000 recently completed centrifuges.
"It is the latest in a series of provocative moves by the DPRK ... it is a very difficult problem we have been struggling to deal with for 20 years," said Stephen Bosworth, referring to the North by its acronym.
"This is not a crisis, we are not surprised," he told reporters in Seoul after meeting Monday with South Korean officials, on the first leg of a tour of the region's main powers.
"We've been watching and analyzing the DPRK's aspirations to produce uranium. [However, it is] not helpful to jointly agreed goals we have subscribed to in terms of peace, prosperity, and stability in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia."
Mr. Kim also played down the facility, telling reporters: "It's nothing new."
Top U.S. military officials, however, were much less sanguine and warned that the facility could speed up the North's ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said it could enable North Korea to build "a number" of nuclear devices beyond the handful it is presumed to have already assembled.
A U.S. nuclear scientist said at the weekend that North Korean officials had shown him a uranium enrichment plant, with more than a thousand centrifuges, giving the North a second route to produce nuclear bombs.
Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University said he had been escorted to a plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex this month where he saw hundreds of centrifuges that North Korea said were operational.
"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," wrote Mr. Hecker.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the disclosure showed that North Korea was a "dangerous country" intent on making nuclear weapons. Major powers, he said, must work together to put pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
In particular, he said China - North Korea's closest ally - would necessarily have "an awful lot to do with" future attempts to sway Pyongyang.
"We've been engaged with China for an extended period of time with respect to North Korea ... a great part of this, I think, will have to be done through Beijing," Adm. Mullen told U.S. television.
The North Koreans told Mr. Hecker they had 2,000 centrifuges in operation, but the U.S. team that visited the country was unable to verify that they were working. Mr. Hecker said North Korea described the program as aiming to generate electricity.
Mr. Gates said he doesn't believe the facility is part of a peaceful nuclear energy program.
"I don't credit that at all," Mr. Gates said in Bolivia, where he is attending a regional defense conference, adding that North Korea had a nuclear arms program for some time and probably had a number of nuclear devices.
It wasn't immediately clear why the North chose to reveal the previously hidden facility. It could be a ploy to win concessions in nuclear talks or an attempt to bolster leader Kim Jong-il's apparent heir, son Kim Jong-un.
Analysts also speculated that North Korea is seeking to gain leverage in any aid-for-disarmament negotiations in stalled six-way talks with regional powers China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.