Pakistani Tells of North Korean Nuclear Devices: In Secret Underground Facilities
The New York Times
April 13, 2004
WASHINGTON, April 12 Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear technology around the world, has told his interrogators that during a trip to North Korea five years ago he was taken to a secret underground nuclear plant and shown what he described as three nuclear devices, according to Asian and American officials who have been briefed by the Pakistanis.
If Dr. Khan's report is true, it would be the first time that any foreigner has reported inspecting an actual North Korean nuclear weapon. Past C.I.A. assessments of North Korea's nuclear capacity have been based on estimates of how much plutonium it could produce and assessments of its technical capability to turn that plutonium into weapons.
Dr. Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani bomb, said he was allowed to inspect the weapons briefly, according to the account that Pakistan has begun to provide in classified briefings to nations within reach of North Korea's missiles. American intelligence officials caution that they cannot say whether Dr. Khan had the time, expertise or equipment to verify the claims. But they note that the number of plutonium weapons roughly accords with previous C.I.A. estimates that North Korea had one or two weapons and the ability to produce more.
White House officials declined to discuss the intelligence reports, saying through a spokesman that the subject was "too sensitive." But Vice President Dick Cheney was briefed on Dr. Khan's assertions before he left for Asia over the weekend, and he is expected to cite the intelligence to China's leaders on Tuesday to press the point that talks over disarming North Korea are going too slowly, administration officials said. They expect him to argue that the Bush administration is losing patience and may seek stronger action, including sanctions.
Dr. Khan also told Pakistani officials that he began dealing with North Korea on the sale of equipment for a second way of producing nuclear weapons through the enrichment of uranium, as opposed to plutonium as early as the late 1980's. But he said he did not begin major shipments to North Korea until the late 1990's, after the country's plutonium program was frozen under an agreement with the United States. North Korea has since renounced that agreement.
According to officials who have reviewed the intelligence reports from Pakistan, Dr. Khan admitted that he shipped to North Korea both the designs for the centrifuges used to enrich uranium and a small number of complete centrifuges. He also provided a "shopping list" of equipment that North Korea needed to produce thousands of the machines.
"We think they've pretty much bought everything on the list, with the possible exception of a few components," said one American official, adding that the Bush administration is still uncertain exactly where the uranium weapons program is, or whether it has begun production.
As the intelligence briefing by the Pakistani officials has flowed through South Korea and Japan, it has set off alarms among senior Asian officials. Until now, they have tried to finesse the subject of whether North Korea is already a nuclear power, or was simply bluffing as it works to develop weapons. China, in particular, has cast doubt on the American and South Korean claims that North Korea is developing a uranium weapon, perhaps hoping to take at least one problem off the table after a year of so-far fruitless talks in Beijing.
"Asia can ignore a lot of things when it deems it convenient," said Kurt Campbell, a senior defense official in the Clinton administration. "But these reports make it very hard for the regional powers China, South Korea and Japan to pretend publicly that North Korea doesn't already have a significant nuclear capacity."
Many critical details are missing from the account that Pakistan has given to the United States and its Asian allies. Because Pakistani officials are not permitting American intelligence agencies to interrogate Dr. Khan directly, American officials are getting their information second-hand. Some officials suspect that Pakistan is withholding crucial details, including any evidence about countries that Dr. Khan dealt with beyond North Korea, Iran and Libya.
According to officials with access to the intelligence reports, Dr. Khan described being taken to a secret plant that appears to have been different from the main North Korean nuclear plant at Yongbyon. "It was about an hour out of the capital, Khan says," according to one senior Asian official. "But it's not clear in what direction."
It is unclear to American intelligence officials whether Dr. Khan was taken to a site that Americans previously suspected was a nuclear plant or to a site they were previously unaware of.
Dr. Khan was shown what was described to him as three plutonium devices, he reported. He told his interrogators that the weapons appeared to be complete, not just a jar full of warm material that the North Koreans handed to a visiting American weapons expert earlier this year, telling him it proved their "nuclear deterrent force."
Because Dr. Khan is a metallurgist by training, not a nuclear scientist, it is unclear whether he would have the expertise to know the difference between an actual weapon or a mock-up. But he may have been familiar with the basic design of such a weapon: he was present at the test site in 1998 when Pakistan tested four weapons, including one that American intelligence officials believe was a plutonium bomb. There is an argument under way in the American intelligence community over whether that explosion was conducted with North Korean assistance.
A former American official noted that if North Korea produced three actual weapons by 1999, it was either more skilled at using its then relatively small supply of plutonium than experts thought, or it had obtained an additional source of the bomb-making material.
But now it has plenty. North Korea says it has moved 8,000 nuclear spent-fuel rods out of a storage pond in Yongbyon, and claims that it has reprocessed all of them into bomb-grade plutonium. Many American, Japanese and South Korean experts say they doubt that North Korea has reproceessed all those rods into weapons. That many rods would produce six or more weapons.
Moreover, since it evicted international inspectors 16 months ago, North Korea says it has restarted a reactor at Yongbyon, and American officials confirm that claim. It is about due to have its fuel reloaded, and the spent fuel rods from that reactor would provide about another bomb's worth of material.
American officials have known about the Pakistani reports for at least three or four weeks, Asian and American officials say. But they have kept them quiet, and President Bush has not mentioned the country in public for weeks. Many Democrats say they believe that Mr. Bush is trying to play down the issue in an election year, especially because North Korea may be making more bombs as talks drag on.
Mr. Bush's aides say that they are making progress, and that there is no use publicly denouncing North Korea while diplomacy continues. If the country already has a few nuclear weapons, they say, a few more would not make a strategic difference.
"It's an untenable argument," said Samuel R. Berger, President Bill Clinton's national security adviser. "There's a difference between two or three and eight and it's called the market in weapons for global terrorists."