Analysis: Did smugglers help North Korea’s nuclear drive?

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (BestGrowthStock) – North Korea’s new revelations about its nuclear program 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 program on Tuesday, adding to revelations made to an invited U.S. scientist several weeks ago.

It said it was operating a plant with thousands of centrifuges, which are used to refine uranium to fuel power plants or, in a much 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 the world’s biggest nuclear proliferation scandal, Khan confessed in 2004 to selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Iran and Libya.

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

PEDDLING PERIL

In his book Peddling Peril, published this year, proliferation expert David Albright says that the global spread of 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 program either directly in China or by using it as a transit point.

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

U.S. diplomatic cables published by the website WikiLeaks indicate that the United States has complained to Beijing about the shipment of missile components from North Korea to Iran via China, according to Britain’s Guardian.

NUCLEAR TESTS

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 this to other states.

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

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 it, 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 Syrian site bombed by Israel in 2007 was a nascent North Korean-designed nuclear reactor intended to produce bomb fuel.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Analysis: Did smugglers help North Korea’s nuclear drive?