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North Korea to Restart Yongbyon Reactor; South Korean Reaction

Aired April 2, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

We focus tonight on North Korea's nuclear threat and we will have exclusive interviews with the top scientists and South Korea's ambassador to the United Nations.

Now North Korea today says that it's reactivating its plutonium complex at Yongbyon, even though the Pentagon told me just yesterday on this program that the Hermit Kingdom might be dialing down its threat of war.

Yongbyon, of course, is the very complex that North Korea decommissioned with great fanfare back in 2008. In a brief period of cooperation with the United States. I traveled to Yongbyon at that time, was one of very few Western journalists invited to actually watch the North mothball its plant five years ago.

Take a look at my report from back then.


AMANPOUR: How long do you think it'll take to get all the fuel rods out?

AMANPOUR (voice-over): U.S. technicians helping North Korea disable its main Yongbyon nuclear facility help us suit up for a rare tour of the reactor.

Here, 1,600 nuclear fuel rods have been neutralized under six meters of now freezing water, in the so-called fuel rod pond.

Walking around Yongbyon, officials show us what's been disabled since the plant was shut off last summer. Here, a pipe has been cut and laid on the ground. It was part of the coolant circuit that sent steam to the turbine generator to produce electricity.

Here, the distinctive cooling tower has been gutted. Just the concrete shell remains. The wooden heart of the tower has been chopped down.

And this is the reprocessing plant, where plutonium is extracted from the fuel rods.

AMANPOUR: Plutonium that can be used for weapons?

AMANPOUR (voice-over): "Yes, it can," the chief engineer tells us.

But today, it too has been disabled. Parts have been taken out, stored and wrapped in plastic. In return for all of this, the North Koreans were promised fuel oil, aid and more.

AMANPOUR: What you want is a million tons of fuel. You want to be removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But the U.S. has not done that. So North Korea has now slowed down the process.

AMANPOUR: How many rods are you taking out per day?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We are taking out 30 fuel rods per day.

AMANPOUR: How many could you take out if you were going at maximum speed?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Eighty rods.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): For its part, the U.S. says North Korea still owes a full accounting of all its past nuclear activities.


AMANPOUR: Now incredible as it might seem, right after that report, concessions were being made on both sides. The United States removed North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. And North Korea, in a sign of good faith, decided to destroy that cooling tower we showed you at Yongbyon. And I was invited to witness that as well.



AMANPOUR: So what's happened in these intervening years? Siegfried Hecker is one of the world's most prominent nuclear scientists. He's the former director of America's Los Alamos national laboratory and he and his colleagues were the last Western observers to tour Yongbyon back in 2010.

He says North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons. He joined me earlier from Vienna and I asked him exactly what restarting the plant might mean now.


AMANPOUR: Dr. Hecker, welcome to the program.

DR. SIEGFRIED HECKER, NUCLEAR SCIENTIST: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you straight from those reports that I did back in 2008, that looked like a plant that had been disabled, mothballed, the cooling tower blown up. They brought us in to see all of this.

How easy will it be to restart the Yongbyon plant?

HECKER: They could restart it probably in six months to a year's time. They would have to rebuild the cooling tower. They would also have prepare the fresh shield (ph) to put it in. But in my opinion, it could be done in that six month to a year's time.

AMANPOUR: Six months to a year. Let me ask you, when we were shown what they did five years ago, were we being taken for a ride? Was this really mothballed? Was it just standing by for precisely this moment?

HECKER: No, I believe they were actually serious in what they called the disablement of those facilities. I'd actually also (inaudible) disablement earlier in 2008. And what I reported was, look, they're serious about this. However, they have kept the contingency to be able to restart it. So they went ahead, disabled it, but not dismantled it.

And so for the last five years, they've had it mothballed but at any of those times, they could actually have the technical capacity to restart it.

AMANPOUR: We're talking about Yongbyon, which is a plutonium reprocessing plant. How many bombs -- plutonium bombs -- does North Korea have? And how quickly could it build more from Yongbyon?

HECKER: My best estimate on the basis of my visits and my discussions with the North Korean specialists that they have perhaps four to eight bombs' worth of plutonium. They've made a little more than that. But as you know, some of that they've blown up. Some of it, of course, is in the reprocessing is sort of reprocessing lost. But they currently have four to eight bombs' worth.

Right now, they cannot build any more plutonium bombs because they've reprocessed all the plutonium. There's none in the pipeline.

I think that is why they've said they would restart their reactor. If they restart their reactor, six months to a year's time, the best they could do is to build one bomb's worth a year. However, it would take them about three years before they would actually be able to reprocess more. So let's say in three years' time, they could then potentially build one more bomb's worth a year. That's it.

AMANPOUR: So how dangerous is that, then, Dr. Hecker? How dangerous is the announcement that they're restarting Yongbyon?

HECKER: I'm not at all surprised by that announcement. I don't think it fundamentally changes the North Korean nuclear threat at this point because they'd have taken the three years to build one bomb's worth a year. It essentially then would strengthen their ability to make more plutonium out in the future years. It does not fundamentally change the threat that North Korea poses today.

AMANPOUR: Do they have other facilities? Is there another plutonium reprocessing plant? Are there uranium enrichment plants? And are they making bombs?

HECKER: So as far as plutonium, we're quite certain there are no more reactors. There are no more plutonium reprocessing plants. So as far as plutonium goes, (inaudible) a year, three years before they could build another bomb worth a year. There's nothing else there.

As far as uranium, that's the second path to the bomb and that is to enrich uranium to be able to make highly enriched uranium for bombs. So in 2010, they showed me a very modern facility but they said it was dedicated to making reactor fuel (ph).

However, I'm quite convinced that they do have a covert uranium enrichment facility somewhere and most likelihood they've at least made some highly enriched uranium for bombs. My own view is that it's most likely limited. But perhaps they can make one or two bombs' worth a year.

And that most likely is also what they meant by today's announcement, that they would readjust the Yongbyon facility. In other words, it's possible that they would take that facility that they showed me, which was meant for making reactor fuel, and turn it into making highly enriched uranium. If they do that, (inaudible) capable of making one or two bombs' worth of highly enriched uranium for bombs.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Hecker, what can these bombs do? Where can they reach? Do they have currently and how quickly could the North Koreans achieving delivery?

HECKER: My view has been that the bombs that North Korea has (inaudible) so far and the ones that it's tested are quite primitive, that they're not yet sufficiently miniaturized to actually put on a missile. You know, they deliver it from afar. At this point, there's no way, in my opinion, that they can reach the United States with a missile that can actually hold a miniaturized bomb. They do not have the bomb; they do not have the missile.

However, as far as the shorter range missiles are concerned, I'm sure that they will continue the work to make those bombs smaller. In my opinion, then it would have to do another nuclear test. And they would probably need to make more plutonium or highly enriched uranium. And that was the nature of today's announcement.

But in my opinion, their delivery capabilities are primitive. So technically the issue is I don't think they can deliver a bomb at a distance. And then the second question, of course, is why would they want to? That's a suicide death wish.

AMANPOUR: Well, it might be a suicide death wish, as you say, but can they, if they want to, reach across the border with a nuclear tipped missile to South Korea?

HECKER: Most likely they would have to deliver that in the -- in a van (ph), by boat or by airplane. I think it's very unlikely that they could actually pull that off in case they had that death wish.

AMANPOUR: In that case, Dr. Hecker, what do you think is going on? Why is North Korea doing this? Does North Korea, in your opinion, have any intention of getting rid of the current nuclear bomb's worth of material that they have?

HECKER: Well, my view has been all along that they're building the capacity to be able to threaten the United States in order to deter the United States. That's why they built the initial bombs.

That's why they've continued to attempt to miniaturize this, because if they can miniaturize, they can at least threaten, either South Korea or the United States, with a missile. And therefore they would have a stronger deterrent to keep the United States out of North Korea's business.

But my opinion, they've built these bombs for a deterrent in order to make them more credible, they have to make them look more threatening. Thereby the more nuclear tests or to do more missile tests.

AMANPOUR: Then what is the solution or the answer from the United States, from its allies? If North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons, what is the best case scenario now?

HECKER: The best that I can say is that my view is they're not going to give up the bomb. So the most important thing is to focus the diplomacy to not let it get worse.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Hecker, thank you so much for joining me.

HECKER: You're very welcome. It's my pleasure.


AMANPOUR: Not let it get worse, Dr. Hecker says, means no more bombs, no better bombs and no exporting of that technology. Can the world achieve that when it comes to North Korea?

And while the world holds its breath, waiting to see if Pyongyang is blowing smoke or preparing to blow up its neighbors, 50 million South Koreans, of course, wait anxiously across the border. The view from Seoul when we come back.

But first, another look at the Hermit Kingdom.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): This was the birthday celebration a year ago on April 15th for North Korea's founding father, the late Kim Il-sung. it was also the coming-out party for his grandson, the current leader, Kim Jong-un. This year, there will be 101 candles on the cake. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and our continuing coverage of North Korea's latest maneuverings, the announcement that it will restart a nuclear reactor that's been closed for six years.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): The declaration, of course, has South Korea on edge. And in a moment, I'll speak with the country's U.N. ambassador about the threat next door.


AMANPOUR: But first, we're used to tough talk and bluster from the North. But is it different this time? CNN's Kyung Lah is in Seoul.

Kyung Lah, great to see you. How are people there reacting to this announcement of the Yongbyon plant?

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly they're paying attention. And they're paying attention very carefully, not just because of the proximity, but because they're sensing that this is a different narrative. This is a different change of tone.

And they're paying attention. And the reason why this is important for us in the international community is because the sentiment here in South Korea, if it shifts, then it affects the president of South Korea, an untested female president, the very first female of a male-dominated country, society, and she is certainly listening to her people and certainly wanting to prove something to those people.

So the sentiment shift, we are definitely seeing it. It started to shirt in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan warship as well as the shelling of Yongbyon island . But certainly we are seeing a very definite shift this week, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Well, very quickly --

LAH: People here now actually bring into the conversation that there could be a war.

AMANPOUR: -- well, let's hope not. But it is kind of ironic, isn't it, because the new president came in, wanting to try to have a better relationship, to try to dial down all the tensions on the peninsula. And now this has been thrown at her within, you know, hours of her inauguration.

LAH: Yes, certainly. And it's certainly a very big challenge. And the political sentiment here on the street is that people want her to respond. You definitely feel it. If you walk in the train stations, if you walk in the streets, you certainly sense that. And when I was mentioning the war, it was such a remote possibility, something that you couldn't even consider here in the peninsula.

Now no one thinks it'll happen, but they actually are looking at it as a glimmer of a possibility. That is certainly a shift.

AMANPOUR: All right. Kyung Lah, thank you so much from Seoul.

And now joining me is South Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Kim Sook.

Ambassador, welcome. You heard what Kyung Lah said from Seoul. Is it possible, do you think, that there could be war?

KIM SOOK, SOUTH KOREA AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: Well, always possible. But at the moment, whether it is practically possible I think rather negative because we have seen this kind of situation before, at the very -- the high level of the rhetoric and this time around invectives. We have seen many times before.

But this time, it is a bit different because the level and intensity of that invectives and slandering is different. But people in Seoul and by and large the South Korean people are not in panic. And they don't expect the war could happen anytime soon. But we leave nothing to chance. We are very prepared to any kind of provocation and we are prepared to any kind of contingency.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador, obviously they are -- there are great concerns, we just heard from our correspondent. What about the president? I just asked Kyung Lah about this challenge, this really early challenge to President Park.

And she said just yesterday, she said, "If there's any provocation against South Korea and its people, there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations."

This is a pretty difficult thing for a new president to undertake.

KIM: Yes. Well, if we go back several decades and see what happened when every president from the South, well, (inaudible) North Korea by and large tried to test the texture of the new president in her or his political will. I think, well, one of the reason that North Korea is very harsh on the United States and on the Republic of Korea is to test the new leadership in Seoul right now.

AMANPOUR: Does -- let me just ask you. You talked about the fact that she's a woman, the first woman president. And, frankly, the North has been very, very strong against that fact. They called -- they blamed her, quote, "venomous swish of skirt" for the recent tensions between the two countries.

Is the fact that she's a woman playing into this?

KIM: Well, well, I cannot speak for North Koreans, what they think of my president. But the female president does not necessarily mean she's weak.

She is politically very solid and, well, her parents (sic - means one of her parents - her mother) were tragically assassinated by North Korea some decades ago. So -- and she has gone through such difficult period and I firmly believe that my new president is as firm and solid in dealing with North Korea.

But she placed out the so-called trust politics as her main part of the policy, which says building confidence is first before anything else. So far North Korea did not answer positively.

AMANPOUR: So, ironically, she's the president who wanted to try to reestablish less tension between the two neighbors.

Let me ask you whether you feel confident that the United States is protecting you well enough. We spoke to the Pentagon press secretary; we know about all the military maneuvers, the joint operations and the U.S. sending flights over and sending a warship to the area. Listen to what George Little told me on this program yesterday.


GEORGE LITTLE, U.S. ASST. SECY. OF DEFENSE: Our recent activities with our South Korean allies have been about alliance assurance, about ensuring them that we are there to protect them. We also have 28,500 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula and we have other friends in the region, too, like Japan. And it's about their security that we're most concerned.


AMANPOUR: So the U.S. saying all of this is not necessarily a show of force against the North, but to convince you and to give you the good feeling of being under the protective umbrella.

Do you feel that?

KIM: We are quite satisfied with the current alliance relationship between the Republic of Korea and the United States. And on --

AMANPOUR: Do you feel safe?

KIM: I feel safe. And the people are safe, feel safe, in general. And I'm quite happy that there is no daylight between the Republic of Korea and the United States.

AMANPOUR: So what do you think it is that the North Koreans want? Why, in your analysis of what's going on, do you think the restart of Yongbyon, the threats against the United States and South Korea, you heard Professor Hecker tell me that he thought it was to raise its strength and to be a deterrent against the United States.

KIM: According to the pronouncement by spokesmen in Pyongyang, the hostile (ph) policy of the United States is the main cause of North Korean, the attitude.

But I think, well, United States, along with the allies and friends, tried many times to reach out North Korea. But every time they refuse to be engaged in a dialogue as sincerely and serious as possible. They have lost many opportunities to get involved and engaged in a constructive dialogue.

AMANPOUR: They've always said they want direct talks with the United States. The U.S. and its allies, including yourself, and Japan and obviously China want to do it as a group effort, so to speak.

Are you sure that China, which is practically the only country with leverage over North Korea, can have an influence now?

KIM: Well, China may be the only country in the world that have some influence on North Korea.

AMANPOUR: Can they use it?

KIM: Well, and -- but China does not upset that theory easily. But China is also as frustrated and angry about the recent narrative violation and contravention of Security Council resolution. And they are trying, still trying. They never give up.

And we appreciate Chinese attempt, the serious attempt, repeated attempted to persuade North Korea to come out of their nutshell and be engaged in dialogue in a constructive way.

AMANPOUR: So if it's not war, you think dialogue is still on the table?

KIM: Of course, of course. Yes, dialogue is by and large the first and foremost ways to engage North Korea.

AMANPOUR: Ambassador, thank you so much for joining me.

KIM: Thank you for having me.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back with a final thought after a break.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, despite our reporting about the mounting tensions between North and South Korea, it's worth imagining a world where North and South do work peacefully together.

It's called Kaesong, located inside North Korea, just above the demilitarized zone. Every day, hundreds of South Koreans cross the border into the Hermit Kingdom to reach this thriving industrial complex. It's the last remaining symbol of mutual cooperation between the two countries.

It might seem incredible, but for the past eight years while Western sanctions have crippled North Korea's economy, its neighbor, South Korea, has maintained over 100 factories in Kaesong, providing a much needed paycheck for tens of thousands of North Korean workers. And they manufacture everything from shoes to clothes to electronics.

Despite proclaiming, quote, "a state of war" and issuing repeated threats to shut it down, North Korea's leaders have kept the road to Kaesong open, an island of beautification on what remains the tensest border in the world. And perhaps that is the signal that we're watching.

And that is it for tonight's program. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.