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.
A spokesperson at the Chinese Embassy denied any knowledge of the company and its activities.
"I am not aware of anything about the North Korean company mentioned. . . . China is steadfastly opposed to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and its deliveries, and it has been faithfully honoring its international obligations and responsibilities," Wang Baodong said in an e-mailed statement.
Proliferation experts say NCG used many methods to conceal the intended use of the items it was acquiring.
NCG has acted "as a trading agent or middleman, buying items through Chinese trading companies or directly from foreign companies," said David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security and an expert on the international black market for nuclear technology.
Because of its branch office in China, NCG can buy equipment from suppliers throughout the world, even in Europe and possibly in the United States, particularly if the companies have subsidiaries in China, Albright said. Moreover, export controls in China are poorly implemented and simple to evade.
Other North Korean companies with offices outside the country have bought militarily sensitive equipment from commercial vendors, including parts for making ballistic missiles, nuclear bombs and other advanced weapons, U.S. officials say. Over the years, they have bought metals used in uranium enrichment and chemical precursors for highly lethal nerve agents, the officials said.
"North Korea often works through these trading companies, which facilitate business deals and other activities overseas that earn foreign exchange for the government and especially for the top leadership. They have been very active in the past in facilitating missile sales in countries like Syria and Iran," said Larry Niksch, an expert on Asia at the Congressional Research Service.
A U.S. counterproliferation official said in an interview that North Korea typically uses "one, two or more layers" of front companies so it can plausibly deny knowledge of actual intended use. "Sometimes they can fool the supplier by saying the goods are intended for another country altogether. North Korea does this very well," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because U.S. investigations remain classified.
Over the past decade, NCG's activities have been the target of investigations spanning two continents. Its attempt to purchase hundreds of high-strength tubes from European businesses attracted the attention of the German government in 2003. The tubes were made of a highly specialized type of aluminum used in making centrifuges for uranium enrichment, but Yun, the NCG businessman, told German companies that they were destined for an aircraft factory in China, according to court documents.
Eventually, Yun -- who earlier served as the head of North Korea's United Nations delegation in Vienna, the home of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency -- struck a deal with a Bavarian company to obtain 22 tons of British-made tubes. They were placed on an Asia-bound ship in April 2003 and made it as far as the Suez Canal before German authorities ordered the cargo seized.
A subsequent investigation by nuclear weapons experts, including several at the International Atomic Energy Agency, concluded that the tubes were not suited for aircraft. The Chinese company named by NCG as the intended user denied ordering such tubes, U.S. and European investigators said.
In court documents and interviews, German officials alleged that NCG had operated as a front company for years and had sought to buy a wide range of sensitive equipment from European firms, including oscilloscopes and other electronic gear used in making and testing nuclear detonators.
Neither Yun nor NCG was charged with wrongdoing in Germany, but the owner of the company that sold the tubes was sentenced to four years in prison for his role in the sale.
The discovery of a series of attempted purchases prompted the CIA to predict that North Korea could have an operational uranium enrichment facility by 2005. But no such facility has ever been identified, and North Korea insists the tubes were meant for other programs, including missile production. North Korea has allowed U.S. officials to take smelted aluminum it purchased from other countries back to the United States for analysis.
U.N. Resolution 1718 stipulates that all member states must "prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer" to North Korea "through their territories or by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories" any material or technology that would contribute to a nuclear weapons program.
White House and State Department officials have declined to comment on whether the Bush administration is trying to get China to act against NCG.
"We have nothing to add beyond what has already been said about North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria," said State Department press officer Gonzalo Gallegos. "As the White House said last week, the United States is . . . committed to ensuring that North Korea does not further engage in proliferation activities."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.