- The Washington Times - Monday, December 9, 2002

North Korea is trying to buy a chemical from China used in the production of nuclear-weapons fuel that U.S. intelligence officials say is a sign the communist government in Pyongyang is continuing to secretly develop nuclear arms, The Washington Times has learned.
North Korean government agents were tracked by U.S. intelligence to several Chinese companies that make the chemical, known as tributyl phosphate, or TBP, said officials familiar with classified intelligence reports.
"This shows they are moving ahead with their uranium [nuclear-weapons] program," an intelligence official said.
The chemical has commercial uses, but U.S. intelligence agencies believe the North Koreans want the TBP as part of the uranium-based nuclear-arms development program, which the CIA estimates is about two years away from being able to produce fuel for nuclear bombs.
The TBP "will be used to turn spent [nuclear] fuel into weapons-grade uranium," the official said.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
The Chinese companies involved in the North Korean chemical deal were not identified. However, Chinese companies have been sanctioned by the Bush administration at least three times in the past year for similar weapons-related sales to Iran and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence agencies also have detected recent activity at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear facility that may signal the communist government in Pyongyang is preparing to restart the reactor, which was shut as part of a 1994 agreement, an intelligence official said.
A State Department intelligence bureau report made public last month stated that North Korea has not reloaded the 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon and had stopped construction of larger 50-megawatt and 200-megawatt reactors at the site. "It is not producing fuel at the fuel fabrication facility at Yongbyon, and it has forgone reprocessing spent fuel," the bureau said in written answers to questions from the Senate intelligence committee.
North Korean government officials in October confirmed U.S. intelligence reports that the government is developing uranium-based nuclear arms, despite promises to freeze nuclear-weapons development under the 1994 agreement.
The disclosure led the United States to cut off fuel oil shipments last month. The oil was meant to help North Korean energy shortfalls until the electrical-power-generating reactors are built during the next several years.
North Korea responded to the cutoff by announcing that the 1994 accord was nullified.
Asked about the North Korean nuclear-arms program on Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he discussed the issue with South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun during meetings at the Pentagon.
North Korea's continuing efforts to build nuclear weapons in violation of arms agreements will be a topic of discussion in talks in the region by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who is visiting the South Pacific this week. Mr. Armitage will make stops in South Korea, Japan, Australia and China.
On Friday, the State Department announced that a year-end meeting of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization would be postponed until next month. The meeting of the organization, which deals with energy issues in North Korea, had been scheduled to discuss how the United States, Japan and South Korea would respond to North Korea's nuclear program.
The Bush administration is waiting until after South Korea holds presidential elections, set for Dec. 19, before deciding how to deal with the growing nuclear showdown with the North.
The administration is especially concerned that the candidate of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, which has taken a conciliatory line toward the North Korean nuclear-arms program, will be elected.
Diplomatically, the administration is working within the 41-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group to curb sales of weapons goods, including TBP, to North Korea.
"There's no question but that the situation in North Korea is very serious," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters last week. "They have violated several agreements and proceeded on a very dangerous course."
Nuclear-arms specialists say TBP is used in purifying uranium and also can be used for making new plutonium fuel at the Yongbyon nuclear facility.
TBP also is used for reprocessing spent plutonium fuel.
Leonard S. Spector, deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said the reported North Korean chemical dealing could mean several things.
"Depending on their timing, these activities could signal that, in response to the new confrontation with the United States, North Korea is getting ready to exploit the demise of the Agreed Framework," Mr. Spector said.
The 1994 Agreed Framework was supposed to have halted all work on North Korea's nuclear weapons in exchange for the United States, Japan and South Korea providing the North with two nuclear-electrical-power reactors.
Mr. Spector said the North Koreans may be sending signals through the attempted purchase of TBP as "a way for Pyongyang to turn up the heat a little, without going to the brink."
Mr. Spector said he believes that as long as North Korea allows nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, "the North Koreans want a deal, not a blowup."
North Korea announced last week that it had rejected a request from the IAEA to inspect its nuclear facilities, including those at Yongbyon.
The international nuclear agency announced Nov. 29 that North Korea should immediately permit nuclear inspections and "give up any nuclear-weapons program, expeditiously and in a verifiable manner."
"The [North Korean] government cannot accept the Nov. 29 resolution of the IAEA board of governors in any case and there is no change in its principled stand on the nuclear issue," North Korea's central news agency said, citing a Dec. 2 letter from Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun.
President Bush had said North Korea is one of three "axis of evil" states. The others are Iraq and Iran.
The CIA released an unclassified assessment of the North Korean nuclear-arms program last month.
The agency concluded that North Korea could build several plutonium bombs right away and add one bomb every year until 2005 if the Agreed Framework collapses. Beginning in 2005, North Korea could begin large-scale production of nuclear weapons up to 50 bombs a year.

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