Evidence links North Korea to uranium sold to Libya

If proved, it would be first known time country provided nuclear material

May 23, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - International inspectors have discovered evidence that North Korea secretly provided Libya with nearly 2 tons of uranium in early 2001, which if confirmed would be the first known case in which the North Korean government has sold a key ingredient for manufacturing atomic weapons, according to U.S. officials and European diplomats familiar with the intelligence.

The Libyans turned over a giant cask of uranium hexafluoride to the United States this year as part of Col. Muammar el Kadafi's agreement to give up his nuclear program, and the Americans identified Pakistan as the likely source.

But in recent weeks the International Atomic Energy Agency has found strong evidence that the uranium came from North Korea, basing its conclusion on interviews with members of the secret nuclear supplier network set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former head of Pakistan's main nuclear laboratory. Two years ago, the United States charged that North Korea was working to build its own uranium-based nuclear weapons, which would require the same raw materials.

The uranium shipped to Libya could not be used as nuclear weapons material unless it were enriched in centrifuges, which the Libyans were constructing as part of a $100 million program to purchase equipment from the Khan network.

If enriched, the fuel Libya obtained could produce a single nuclear weapon, experts say. But the Libyan discovery suggests that North Korea may be capable of producing far larger quantities, especially because the country maintains mines that the Federation of American Scientists has said contain "4 million tons of exploitable high-quality uranium."

At a time when the Bush administration is focused on Iraq, the fresh intelligence on North Korea poses another challenge to the United States. The classified evidence - many details of which are still sketchy - has touched off a race among the world's intelligence services to explore whether North Korea has made similar clandestine sales to other nations or perhaps even to terror groups.

"The North Koreans have been selling missiles for years to many countries," one senior Bush administration official said recently, referring to the country's well-known sales to Iran, Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and other nations. "Now, we have to look at their trading network in a very different context, to see if something much worse was happening as well."

Iran has bought centrifuges from the Khan network, investigators believe, but it has denied that it is seeking a nuclear weapon.

While reluctant to discuss the details, U.S. officials describe the discovery of the North Korean connection as an intelligence success that came from Libya's decision to dismantle its nuclear program and the ensuing drive to break up Khan's network. President Bush has said several times that Libya made its decision after it witnessed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, an argument the Libyans reject.

The sources the agency has developed in the Khan network are considered reliable, a European diplomat familiar with the intelligence said, but the experience of false and deliberately misleading reports about Iraq's weapons programs has made the international agency and the United States more cautious. The agency hopes to confirm the finding with the North Koreans, but since IAEA inspectors were evicted Dec. 31, 2002, there has been virtually no contact with the North's government.

At the same time, the emerging story of the North Korean sales also reveals another intelligence lapse: Though U.S. satellites monitor North Korea more carefully than almost any nation, intelligence officials apparently failed to detect the uranium shipments.

As recently as March, when the Bush administration invited reporters to a secure nuclear facility in Tennessee to view the nuclear hardware turned over by Libya, a senior administration official said that Libya's uranium was likely to have come from Pakistan.

U.S. officials' main focus is North Korea's plutonium program, which was restarted after international atomic inspectors were thrown out of the country 17 months ago. Since then, according to North Korea, it has turned into bomb fuel all the nuclear fuel rods that the international agency had under its supervision. If that turns out to be correct, experts estimate that plutonium fuel could be used to produce six to eight weapons.

Within the Bush administration there is a heated debate about how far North Korea has progressed. The State Department intelligence agency, which is typically more cautious in its assessments, says it is not convinced that North Korea has produced those weapons, while the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency are more convinced that the processing of the fuel is probably complete and that the plutonium has been converted into weapons.

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