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Analysis - Did smugglers help North Korea's nuclear drive?

VIENNA (Reuters) - North Korea’s new revelations about its nuclear programme have demonstrated how hard it is to stop the smuggling of nuclear equipment and know-how.

The secretive state gave details of an expanded nuclear programme on Tuesday, adding to disclosures made to an invited U.S. scientist several weeks ago.

Pyongyang said it was operating a plant with thousands of centrifuges, which are used to refine uranium to fuel power plants or, in a longer process, to produce the material for nuclear warheads.

Experts say the North almost certainly needed help to obtain components secretly from several sources over many years.

“I don’t think there is any question that the Korean case points to a continuation of this illicit trade,” said Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He said the dismantling of a network run by the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan some seven years ago had not ended the black market in the technology needed for such plants.

In what became the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation scandal, Khan confessed in 2004 to selling atomic secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

Hibbs said he believed some of the people linked to Khan’s operation were still active. “The overwhelming motivation for these people to get involved in this activity is greed.”


In his book Peddling Peril, published this year, Washington-based proliferation expert David Albright says that the global spread of high technology and rapid growth in global trade have made life easier for nuclear smugglers.

“It’s simpler now to obtain the materials, equipment and know-how to produce nuclear weapons than it was 10 years ago,” he writes, “and could be simpler still 10 years from now.”

Mark Fitzpatrick at the International Institute for Strategic Studies cautioned that it was not clear exactly when the North had received help from abroad. He said Pakistan had provided training, centrifuge models and a list of components and suppliers before the Khan network was broken up.

“I expect that it got most of what it needed before U.N. sanctions and heightened U.S.-led interdiction efforts kicked in,” Fitzpatrick said. “But many of the worldwide suppliers from whom Khan procured parts remained in business.”

The Institute for Science and International Security, a think-tank headed by Albright, said in a report in October that North Korea often procured for its enrichment programme either directly in China or by using it as a transit point.

Even though most believe China views the North’s nuclear arms programme as destabilising to the region, the report said Beijing was not doing enough to detect and halt such trade.

“Lawmakers and law enforcement agencies often play catch-up. Those trading in these goods are very capable of getting around the legislation,” said Andreas Persbo, executive director of the Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC).

On Tuesday, a North Korean newspaper said construction of a new light-water nuclear reactor was in progress and “a modern uranium enrichment plant equipped with several thousands of centrifuges, to secure the supply of fuels, is operating.”

The uranium centrifuges could provide North Korea’s second source of weapons-grade material, and Washington is particularly worried that it could sell such technology to other states.


The North already has a plutonium-based nuclear device and carried out two nuclear test explosions in 2006 and 2009, but has not shown it has a working, deliverable nuclear bomb.

It was not possible to verify Pyongyang’s latest claims, as inspectors from the U.N.-nuclear watchdog based in Vienna were expelled from the country last year.

But the report is likely to increase concern among Western officials about the possible existence of more nuclear sites -- in North Korea or elsewhere -- which they do not know about.

“These plants are small, potent, and very difficult to detect. It’s a difficult technology to master, but is getting increasingly accessible as the technology matures,” Persbo said.

Iran last year said it was building a second enrichment plant inside a mountain bunker after keeping the site secret from the International Atomic Energy Agency for three years.

Iran says it is enriching uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants, but major powers suspect the Islamic Republic, too, is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

“There must be other locations with enrichment activities in North Korea,” Olli Heinonen, who resigned in August as head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s inspections worldwide, told Reuters.

“To reach this stage, they must have gone through a fairly comprehensive R&D (research and development) stage using nuclear materials,” said Heinonen, who is now at Harvard University.

U.S. intelligence reports have said a site in the Syrian desert bombed by Israel three years ago was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb fuel.

Robert Kelley, a former IAEA director, said “communications intercepts, human sources or a very good analysis of trade” were needed to detect such sites.

Editing by Mark Heinrich