NK built plant for uranium enrichment

WASHINGTON: North Korea may have constructed a plant to manufacture a gas needed for uranium enrichment in a development that would indicate that Pyongyang had opened a second way to build nuclear weapons as early as the 1990s, The Washington Post reported late Sunday.

Citing a previously unpublicized account by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb program, the newspaper said North Korea may have been enriching uranium on a small scale by 2002, with maybe 3,000 or even more centrifuges.

Pakistan helped North Korea with vital machinery, drawings and technical advice for at least six years, the report said.

The Post said Khan's account could not be independently corroborated. But one US intelligence official and a US 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.

It also may help explain Pyongyang's assertion in September that it is in the final stages of such enrichment, the paper noted.

Khan described his dealings with the country in official documents and in correspondence with a former British journalist, Simon Henderson, who said he thinks an accurate understanding of Pakistan's nuclear history is relevant for US policymaking, the report pointed out.

The Post independently verified that the documents were produced by Khan.

Khan's account of the pilot plant depicts relations between the two countries' scientists as exceptionally close for nearly a decade, the paper said.

Khan says, for example, that during a visit to North Korea in 1999, he toured a mountain tunnel, according to the report. 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.

His visit occurred seven years before the country's first detonation, prompting some current and former US 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, The Post said.

But Siegfried 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.

The Post quotes Hecker as saying that Khan may have tried to get himself "off the hook" by implying that his own illicit technical assistance to Pyongyang was irrelevant because "these guys already had nuclear weapons."