N. Korean sale of plutonium feared

October 21, 2006|By Greg Miller | Greg Miller,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence officials and weapons proliferation experts say they are concerned that North Korea could add plutonium to the extensive inventory of weapons components and technologies from which it has sold to such nations as Syria, Pakistan and Libya.

Because of North Korea's track record as an eager exporter of arms, some experts are more worried about Pyongyang spreading nuclear technology to other rogue nations than about the possibility of it launching a nuclear attack.

"Iran having nuclear weapons is a threat," said David Albright, a former weapons inspector and current president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.

"It's hard to articulate that North Korea having nuclear weapons is a threat to anybody, except by selling it."

That concern prompted a warning from President Bush on Wednesday that Pyongyang would face a "grave consequence" if caught trying to sell plutonium or nuclear weapons to rogue nations or terror groups.

Albright and other experts, as well as U.S. intelligence officials, said they had not seen evidence that North Korea was attempting to sell the nuclear technology it demonstrated in an underground explosion Oct. 9. Doing so, they said, would be an extreme and dangerous step even for one of the world's most defiant regimes.

But the combination of North Korea's newly demonstrated capability and its long history of selling arms has refocused attention on the worldwide nuclear proliferation threat.

"I don't think you'll find guys saying they've got devices ready to sell off the shelf," said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the subject. "I think the concern would be about components and raw material."

Tracking North Korea's weapons programs and shipments has been a major priority for U.S. intelligence agencies.

Last year, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that samples of processed uranium surrendered by Libya had probably come from North Korea. Libya turned over the materials when it agreed in 2003 to abandon its illegal weapons programs.

Pyongyang has a more extensive and established record as an exporter of conventional missile components.

A study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies showed that North Korea has sold "several hundred" mid-range ballistic missiles "as well as materials, equipment, components and production technology" to countries including Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. Most of the missiles are variants of the Scud design that the Soviets first sold to North Korea in the late 1960s.

Over a two-decade period, sales of missiles and components have brought in revenues of several hundred million dollars, "a significant portion of North Korea's hard currency earnings," the report says.

North Korea is a poor country that relies on China for much of its food and the sale of weapons and contraband, including counterfeit U.S. currency, for much of its revenue.

North Korea is believed to have provided missiles to Iran in exchange for oil. Of greater concern has been an apparent arrangement with Pakistan begun in 1997, in which North Korea provided missile components and technology in return for expertise on developing a uranium-enrichment program - a means of producing weapons-grade material that is more difficult to detect than the reprocessing of plutonium.

Numerous North Korean weapons shipments have been intercepted. In 1996, Swiss authorities stopped a shipment of Scud missile components headed to Egypt, prompting Cairo to promise to curtail its purchases from North Korea.

Given its record, North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon has triggered alarms that the country might next seek to export that capability as well.

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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