- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

North Korea has purchased a large shipment of chemicals from China that can be used to make nuclear-weapons fuel, U.S. intelligence officials say.

North Korean procurement agents succeeded in buying 20 tons of tributyl phosphate, known as TBP, a key chemical used to extract material for nuclear bombs from spent nuclear fuel, said officials familiar with intelligence reports of the transfer.

The officials said the chemical also can be used in commercial processes, such as making plastics, ink and paint.

U.S. intelligence agencies, however, believe North Korea will use the TBP for its plutonium-based nuclear-weapons program, based on sensitive intelligence information, the officials said.

The chemical is used in a process known as plutonium-uranium extraction, or purex, which produces plutonium from spent reactor fuel.

North Korea announced last week that it planned to restart its plutonium reactors at Yongbyon.

"The fact that North Korea is importing tributyl phosphate right now is rather ominous," said Gary Milhollin, director of the private Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. "It's evidence that North Korea plans to extract more plutonium."

The chemical also can be used to prepare uranium for the weapons process, Mr. Milhollin said in an interview.

North Korea has a large supply of spent reactor fuel that is under international surveillance. The reprocessing of the spent fuel means Pyongyang could produce more bombs "in fairly short order, a matter of months," he said.

The TBP transfer, which happened earlier this month, highlights the Chinese government's failure to control the export of goods related to nuclear-weapons production.

The disclosure of the transfer also followed appeals from senior Bush administration officials in recent months for Beijing's help in halting North Korea's nuclear-weapons program.

The transfer itself is an indication that China's government, contrary to some public statements, is unwilling to support U.S. efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear problem, said administration security officials.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Russian President Vladimir Putin said during a summit in Beijing this month that both favored a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

Mr. Jiang also said during an October meeting with President Bush in Crawford, Texas, that China favored a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but stopped short of condemning Pyongyang's nuclear program.

The two presidents agreed at the summit to discuss curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

However, senior administration officials said China continues to export nuclear, chemical and biological weapons material and missile goods, despite claims of curbing exports by Chinese companies to rogue states or unstable regions.

White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told a visiting Chinese general last week that Beijing's help in stopping the North Korean nuclear program would be important to U.S.-China relations.

North Korea's government revealed to a State Department official in October that it was secretly developing uranium-enrichment capability to make fuel for nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang then announced it planned to restart three reactors at the Yongbyon nuclear complex that were shut down under a 1994 agreement.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters yesterday that he did not believe China was helping North Korea's nuclear program and that Beijing was being helpful in U.S. efforts to curb North Korea's drive for nuclear arms.

"China is working with the United States to make certain that we can resolve the situation with North Korea peacefully and diplomatically, and that is being done in concert with South Korea, and Japan and Russia, as well," Mr. Fleischer said.

A White House spokesman had no comment on the Chinese-North Korean chemical transfer.

The TBP purchase is expected to lead to sanctions on the Chinese and North Korean companies involved in the sale. U.S. officials said the company was located in Dalian, a Chinese seaport, but they did not name the company.

U.S. intelligence officials first disclosed North Korea's effort to purchase tributyl phosphate in China to The Washington Times earlier this month.

Henry Sokolski, head of the private Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the transfer of the nuclear arms-related chemical shows the Chinese "don't understand how important this is to us."

"If China thinks this is a good way to restrain North Korean nuclear activities, they need to talk to us," Mr. Sokolski said.

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