Pakistani scientist depicts more advanced nuclear program in North Korea

Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan said North Korea opened a second way to build nuclear weapons by the 1990s.
Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan said North Korea opened a second way to build nuclear weapons by the 1990s. (B.k. Bangash/associated Press)
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By R. Jeffrey Smith and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 2009

North Korea has constructed a plant to manufacture a gas needed for uranium enrichment, according to a previously unpublicized account by the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb program, a development that indicates Pyongyang opened a second way to build nuclear weapons as early as the 1990s.

Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan also said that North Korea may have been enriching uranium on a small scale by 2002, with "maybe 3,000 or even more" centrifuges, and that Pakistan helped the country with vital machinery, drawings and technical advice for at least six years.

North Korea's nuclear program is among the world's most opaque, and Khan's account could not be independently corroborated. But one U.S. intelligence official and a U.S. diplomat said his information adds to their suspicions that North Korea has long pursued the enrichment of uranium in addition to making plutonium for bombs, and may help explain Pyongyang's assertion in September that it is in the final stages of such enrichment.

Khan's account of the pilot plant, which he says North Korea built without help, is included in a narrative that depicts relations between the two countries' scientists as exceptionally close for nearly a decade. Khan says, for example, that during a visit to North Korea in 1999, he toured a mountain tunnel. There his hosts showed him boxes containing components of three finished nuclear warheads, which he was told could be assembled for use atop missiles within an hour.

"While they explained the construction [design of their bombs], they quietly showed me the six boxes" containing split cores for the warheads, as well as "64 ignitors/detonators per bomb packed in 6 separate boxes," Khan said.

Old assumptions

His visit occurred seven years before the country's first detonation, prompting some current and former U.S. officials to say that Khan's account, if correct, suggests North Korea's achievements were more advanced than previously known, and that the country may have more sophisticated weapons, or a larger number, than earlier estimated.

But Siegfried S. Hecker, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory director who was allowed to see some North Korean plutonium during a visit to its nuclear facilities in January 2004, said after hearing Khan's description of the trip he remains unconvinced that the country in 1999 had enough fissile material on hand to make such weapons.

Hecker said Khan may have tried to get himself "off the hook, to say what [he] . . . did was not that bad because these guys already had nuclear weapons. That's a nice way to cover his own tracks."

Since some of Khan's actions were exposed in 2003 and 2004, top Pakistani officials have called him a rogue proliferator. Khan said, however, there was a tacit agreement between the two governments that his laboratory "would advise and guide them with the centrifuge program and that the North Koreans would help Pakistan in fitting the nuclear warhead into the Ghauri missile" -- his country's name for its version of the Nodong missiles that Pakistan bought from North Korea.

Pakistan gave North Korea vital equipment and software, and in return North Korea also "taught us how to make Krytrons" -- extremely fast electrical switches that are used in nuclear detonations and are tightly controlled in international commerce. Contradicting Pakistani statements that the government had no involvement in such sensitive transfers, Khan says his assistance was approved by top political and Army officials, including then-Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who currently oversees Pakistan's atomic arsenal.

Khan, 73, is under house arrest in Islamabad. He has threatened to disclose sensitive information if he remains in confinement.

A contentious issue

The issue of what the hermetic country has been doing with uranium and when it started has been especially contentious since 2002. When an Obama administration envoy, Stephen Bosworth, visited North Korea this month, he "strongly put down a marker" that future talks must include discussion of uranium, a senior U.S. official said.

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