Purchases Linked N. Korean to Syria

By Robin Wright and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 11, 2008

When North Korean businessman Ho Jin Yun first caught the attention of German customs police in 2002, he was on a continental buying spree with a shopping list that seemed as random as it was long.

Yun, police discovered, had been crisscrossing Central Europe, amassing a bafflingly diverse collection of materials and high-tech gadgets: gas masks, electric timers, steel pipes, vacuum pumps, transformers and aluminum tubes cut to precise dimensions.

Most of these wares Yun had shipped to his company's offices in China and North Korea. But some of the goods, U.S. and European officials now say, were evidently intended for a secret project in Syria: a nuclear reactor that would be built with North Korean help, allegedly to produce plutonium for eventual use in nuclear weapons.

According to U.S. officials, European intelligence officials and diplomats, Yun's firm -- Namchongang Trading, known as NCG -- provided the critical link between Pyongyang and Damascus, acquiring key materials from vendors in China and probably from Europe, and secretly transferring them to a desert construction site near the Syrian town of Al Kibar.

It was the company's suspicious buying habits -- and the branch office it opened in Damascus -- that inadvertently contributed to the alleged reactor's discovery and later destruction in a Sept. 6 Israeli bombing raid, U.S. officials say. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen declined in an interview to say whether Washington helped with the raid, but he strongly endorsed it.

"The reactor which was being built was not very far from being operational and needed to be hit," Mullen said.

Alerted to NCG's suspect purchases in Europe, Western spy agencies were able to track the movement of NCG employees and purchases to Syria in 2003, where the outlines of the reactor scheme eventually became apparent. The site was closely scrutinized by Western intelligence officials for months before it was destroyed by Israel. During that period, U.S. officials collected aerial images and acquired interior photos that showed apparent reactor components.

Syria has maintained that the facility was always nonnuclear, but U.S. officials say that as the government cleared the site of debris after the bombing, some telltale reactor components that had been deliberately hidden became visible.

"We judged that these interactions were probably nuclear-related . . . because of who it was we were seeing in those interactions," a senior U.S. intelligence official said at a briefing in Washington last week about the Syrian-North Korean venture. "We assessed the cooperation involved work sites probably within Syria. But again, we didn't know exactly where."

Attempts to contact Yun and other NCG officials by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful.

Syria acknowledges "a working relationship" with North Korea, but Syrian Embassy spokesman Ahmed Salkini said it does not defy any international law. "If this company conducts business with Syria, the terms of transactions would abide by, and would be within, the legal framework of the international community," he said, adding that the embassy has not heard of NCG.

U.S. officials say the Pyongyang-based NCG used an office in Beijing as a base for procuring materials and as a distribution center for items that could not be legally routed through North Korea because of trade sanctions.

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