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CIA confirms Khan's N-sale to NKorea

A report details for the first time the extent to which the Pak scientist provided N Korea with N-knowhow.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2004 14:44 IST

A new US classified intelligence report details for the first time the extent to which Pakistan's Khan Research Laboratories provided North Korea with all the equipment and technology it needed to produce uranium-based nuclear weapons.

The assessment, by the Central Intelligence Agency, confirms the Bush administration's fears about the accelerated nature of North Korea's secret uranium weapons programme, which some intelligence officials believe could produce a weapon as early as sometime next year, the New York Times quoted American and Asian officials as saying.

The report was presented to the White House last week.

The assessment, the paper says, is based in part on Pakistan's accounts of its interrogations of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the developer of Pakistan's bomb, who was pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf in January.

The report concluded that North Korea probably received a package very similar to the kind the Khan network sold to Libya for more than $ 60 million, including nuclear fuel, centrifuges and one or more warhead designs.

A senior American official described it as "the complete package," from raw uranium hexafluoride to the centrifuges to enrich it into nuclear fuel, all of which could be more easily hidden from weapons inspectors than were North Korea's older facilities to produce plutonium bombs.

In the report, the Times says, Khan's transactions with North Korea are traced to the early 1990's, when Benazir Bhutto was the Pakistani Premier, and the clandestine relationship between the two countries is portrayed as rapidly accelerating between 1998 and 2002.

At the time, the report said North Korea was desperate to come up with an alternative way to build a nuclear bomb because its main plutonium facilities were "frozen" under an agreement struck with the Clinton administration in 1994. North Korea abandoned that agreement late in 2002.

But the new assessment, the Times says, leaves two critical issues unresolved as the Bush administration attempts to use a mix of incentives and threats to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programme, so far with little success.

American intelligence agencies still cannot locate the site or sites of any North Korean uranium enrichment facilities, meaning that if the six-party negotiations over the North's nuclear program fail, it would be virtually impossible to try to attack the facilities, which can be hidden in tunnels or inside mountains, undetectable by spy satellites.

American intelligence has also been unable to forecast exactly when the new facilities would be able to produce enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon. It takes several thousand centrifuges to efficiently produce enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon, but North Korea may only be assembling a few hundred a year, the paper said.

"The best guess is still in the next year or two, but it is a guess," one senior United States official with access to the new intelligence report was quoted as saying. "That does not leave much time to find this thing and shut it down."

China, the Times said, has told the Bush administration that it believes North Korea is much farther away from creating a uranium bomb, and Chinese officials have dismissed the US concerns with references to mistakes made by American intelligence agencies in assessing Iraq's nuclear programme and Saddam Hussein's reputed programme to produce biological and chemical weapons.

But North Korea, the paper says, is a very different case. It developed its plutonium programme in plain view of American satellites; it is believed to already possess two or more nuclear weapons; and it has bragged about its efforts to produce more.

The CIA's conclusions about North Korea's uranium were presented to senior White House officials, including the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, in a series of briefings on March 4 and 5.

That followed an inconclusive second round of negotiations involving the United States, North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia that produced agreements to hold more meetings but no commitment by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programme.

First Published: Mar 14, 2004 10:27 IST