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Nuclear Hub Is Pride of Nation

North Korean facility, shut in 1994, is enjoying a resurgence after reactivation decision.

January 13, 2003|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — A narrow dirt road climbs through the mountainous North Korean countryside, meandering past shabby villages and down a long stretch that is oddly devoid of human habitation.

The landscape betrays no clues that anything of significance lies beyond, until the road comes to a guard post and checkpoint and then dead-ends in front of 10-foot-high slabs of concrete.

Here, nestled discreetly in the mountains is a walled city that does not appear on maps and officially does not exist. It is the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center, the centerpiece of North Korea's decades-long quest to become a nuclear power.

In its heyday, Yongbyon was home to about 50,000 people who labored secretly on this project of the utmost national import -- making it, in effect, the Los Alamos of North Korea. The population was reduced to an estimated 10,000 after the communist regime agreed in 1994 to freeze its nuclear development.

Today, with North Korea's decision to restart its nuclear program, Yongbyon is enjoying a resurgence and is again raising anxiety levels around the world. On Saturday, North Korean diplomat Son Mun San in Vienna said the reactor will be ready to operate again "in a few weeks, not a few months."

Most of what is known about Yongbyon comes from a handful of North Korean defectors and from satellite photographs.

Access to the sprawling compound by international inspectors has been severely limited, and with the expulsion late last month of the International Atomic Energy Agency's three most recent inspectors, the activities in Yongbyon have again lapsed into secrecy.

Sean Tyson, a former U.S. Department of Energy employee and one of the few Americans who has spent much time at Yongbyon, describes an atmosphere of extreme paranoia at the site.

"We were only allowed to walk in the building where we worked," said Tyson, who, after the 1994 freeze, managed a project to ensure that fuel rods from Yongbyon's nuclear reactor were safely stored. "If anybody tried to talk to us, they would have been arrested and interrogated. We were always monitored."

Yongbyon is about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital, wedged between the twisting Churyong River and Yaksan, a mountain extolled in Korean poetry for the beauty of its azaleas. The complex sprawls over 2,224 acres and contains about 390 buildings, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

Besides the 5-megawatt reactor at the center of the current controversy, there are laboratories, research institutes, housing and schools for workers and their families, a museum of revolutionary history and an office of the ruling Korean Workers' Party.

The nuclear compound was developed with Soviet technical assistance in the early 1960s under orders from North Korea's founder, the late Kim Il Sung, who was anxious not to fall behind archrival South Korea's efforts to produce nuclear power. The reported cost was $500 million.

For the North, Yongbyon was a development of unsurpassed national importance, say defectors familiar with the project.

"People in North Korea took great pride in the fact that they were developing nuclear capabilities. It was something that only the superpowers had access to, and they were proud of that fact," said Cho Myong Chol, a high-ranking defector and economist, whose father was minister of construction and oversaw the building of Yongbyon.

"Nobody has been able to calculate it, but it was clear that an enormous part of the national budget went into Yongbyon."

Kim Tae Ho -- who worked in the nuclear program for eight years, two of them living inside Yongbyon with his family -- said workers were given the best that North Korea had to offer, with a condition.

"You had a total lack of freedom," Kim said. "Nobody could visit you in Yongbyon, and you couldn't tell anybody outside what your work was. But you got the highest priority of treatment in North Korea."

He recalled that Kim Il Sung visited in 1991 and was so impressed, he ordered that Toshiba color televisions with remote controls be given to scientists at Yongbyon.

"People were thrilled. They had never seen a remote control like that before," said Kim Tae Ho, who as a bureaucrat received only a North Korean-made black-and-white television.

As Kim recalled, workers reached Yongbyon by a special limousine bus, which in itself was luxurious by the standards of North Korean transportation.

"Once you are inside, it's like you've arrived in a city. There's everything from colleges to elementary schools," Kim said. "But a lot of the facilities are closed themselves, surrounded by barbed wire."

Kim held various jobs, at one point managing a nuclear waste dump outside the complex, at another time working in public relations -- which in North Korea meant writing propaganda slogans and songs to inspire fellow workers.

"Let's open the gates of [Korean] unification with nuclear development" and "Nuclear power is self-determination" are samples of his craft.

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