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N. Korea Threat Lies in Nuclear Sales

U.S. intelligence officials and weapons experts say the possible export of atomic material and know-how is a greater concern than an attack.

October 21, 2006|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

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

Because of North Korea's track record as an eager exporter of weaponry, some experts are more worried about the government in 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 terrorist groups.

Albright and other experts, as well as American 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 international attention on the 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, American intelligence analysts concluded that samples of processed uranium surrendered by Libya probably had 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 says North Korea had sold "several hundred" mid-range ballistic missiles "as well as materials, equipment, components and production technology" to countries that include Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen. Most of the exported missiles have been variants of the Scud design the Soviets first sold to North Korea in the late 1960s, the study says.

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

North Korea is an impoverished country that relies on China for much of its food, and it depends on the sale of weapons and contraband, allegedly including counterfeit U.S. currency, for much of its revenue.

North Korea is believed to have engaged in barter arrangements by which it has provided missiles to Iran in exchange for oil. Of greater concern has been an apparent deal with Pakistan begun in 1997 by which North Korea provided missile components and technology in return for expertise on developing a uranium enrichment program -- a means of producing weapons-grade nuclear 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 consignment of Scud missile components headed to Egypt, prompting Cairo to promise to curtail its purchases from North Korea.

Given North Korea's record, its nuclear test has triggered fears that it may next seek to export such weapons technology as well.

As recently as several years ago, American intelligence agencies concluded that North Korea probably had enough plutonium for two or three bombs. But in December 2002, North Korea expelled international inspectors, soon thereafter withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subsequently declared that it was resuming the reprocessing of more than 8,000 spent fuel rods.

"They have certainly produced enough plutonium since that time to make a number of more weapons," said a U.S. defense official familiar with the intelligence on North Korea.

It is unclear whether Pyongyang plans further nuclear tests. American spy satellites and other surveillance have detected suspicious activity at other underground facilities, possibly indicating preparations for another test, U.S. intelligence officials said. However, South Korean and Japanese media reported Friday that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had told a Chinese envoy that Pyongyang would not conduct another test.

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