Last month, Kim Jong Il’s regime showed off a uranium enrichment plant in Yongbyon to Siegfried Hecker. Hecker, who once managed the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he was “stunned” by the “ultra-modern” facility the North Koreans had built within a matter of months.
“I think one has to assume that there are today additional undeclared enrichment-related facilities in North Korea,” a senior unnamed American official told The Financial Times, apparently within the last few days. At about the same time, South Korean officials revealed to the Chosun Ilbo, the Seoul newspaper, that there were “three or four more undisclosed uranium enrichment facilities in addition to the one in Yongbyon.”
Finally, the New York Times website yesterday afternoon prominently featured a report that the Obama administration had concluded that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were far more advanced than Iran’s.
This week has been full of surprises. North Korea's willingness to open its Yongbyon facility to Hecker caught everyone off-guard. And so did the statements from the Americans and South Koreans about the North's uranium enrichment. The question is why all parties are talking about Pyongyang’s “secret” nuclear capabilities at this particular moment.
The motives easiest to understand are Kim Jong Il’s. He generally needs accomplishments to boost the legitimacy of his rule. Moreover, at this time he wants to build a reputation for his twenty-something son, Kim Jong Un, his putative successor. Without achievements, the hastily planned succession to a third-generation Kim can falter.
What the Americans and South Koreans are up to is a bit more mysterious. For the longest time they have been reluctant to talk about the North’s clandestine nuclear program in any but the blandest terms. Now, at a time of high tension on the Korean peninsula, they are speaking in an apparently candid fashion to any reporter who will listen. As a result, they are ratcheting up the pressure, which is a clear break from the approach of these two nations.
So why are Washington and Seoul apparently taking a new tack? Perhaps both think this is a way to put pressure on Beijing to do something about its murderous North Korean ally. Maybe they are trying to blunt further revelations they expect from the North. Finally, it is possible all the stories are simply coincidence.
The last possibility, unfortunately, is the least likely as little happens by chance when it comes to North Korea. The acceleration of news stories about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, consequently, points to even more worrisome developments in the weeks ahead. These days, there is just no good news about Kim Jong Il’s regime.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World.” He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang.