A leading U.S. nuclear scientist and former director of the top secret Los Alamos laboratory is reporting new findings about recent North Korean initiatives to obtain plutonium that are being studied in Washington with increasing concern.

Siegfried Hecker

Siegfried Hecker, who was at Los Alamos from 1973-97, says North Korea is currently working to restart a reactor capable of producing enough plutonium to manufacture 10 atomic bombs a year. He revealed the information, gathered during two trips to North Korea, at a recent conference in Washington, D.C.

Further, Heckler says, North Korea made 30 pounds of plutonium last summer – during the six-party talks hosted by China to end their weapons program – by reprocessing 8,000 nuclear fuel rods.

This information comes at the same time North Korea is cutting off all U.N food aid. The secretive state announced in August that beginning in 2006 it would no longer need emergency food assistance from the World Food Program. Deputy Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon accused the United States of using food aid as a political weapon.

Professor Kim Young-Soo of South Korea’s Sogang University, an expert on North Korea, said yesterday Pyongyang’s intent was to block the WFP and U.S., who were demanding greater access to food distribution and guarantees that aid was reaching intended recipients. Accepting emergency food aid had forced the government to allow access to its citizens in isolated areas.

“North Korea is still suffering from food shortages. This is a tactic for Pyongyang to cope with the mounting demand for transparency in food distribution,” Kim told the BBC. “It will become apparent in the next several months that North Korea will need emergency food aid again.

Diplomats also see evidence of North Korea’s nuclear ambition in the decision to forgo aid and expel foreign aid workers, saying the move takes away leverage by the U.S. and U.N. and is part of a crackdown as Kim Jong-il prepares to join Iran in its confrontation with the U.S.over the right to possess nuclear weapons.

And nuclear scientist Heckler is convinced North Korea has the weapons, reports the London Times.

During a visit in 2004, Heckler met with North Korean physicists and the director of the Yongbyon nuclear research center. A small steel container, containing a wooden box, was brought into the conference room where they were meeting.

“They slid open the box and inside were two glass jars – two marmalade jars, actually – with screw-on tops,” he says. One contained powder, the other a thin scrap of metal – the “stuff you would use for the bombs”.

“I held the plutonium and it passed the test,” Heckler says, although he told the director it didn’t feel very warm.

“Well Dr Hecker,” the Yongbyon director replied, “that’s because the plutonium-240 content is low, which means that it’s good bomb-grade plutonium.”

On a second visit to Pyongyang in August, Hecker learned from the same director of North Korea’s reprocessing success which brings their total stockpile to 90 pounds.

“They have the plutonium,” Hecker says. “We have to assume the North Koreans can and have made a few nuclear devices.”

But it’s the confluence of North Korea’s secretiveness, its poverty and its plutonium that most concerns Hecker, who worries the regime might sell its nuclear material to terrorists.

“Forty kilograms of plutonium, some number of briefcases anywhere in basements, in one of the 15,000 tunnels in North Korea – nobody will find it,” he says.

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