U.S. intelligence analysis of nuclear weapons-related goods obtained from Libya has linked it to North Korea, a sign the communist regime’s weapons program is more advanced than previously suspected.
An Energy Department assessment of several cannisters obtained from Libya last year showed traces of radioactive material that originated in Yongbyon, the North Korean nuclear facility, said Bush administration officials familiar with the intelligence analysis.
Additionally, U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that Libya likely was supplied with a large quantity of uranium hexafluoride that was processed in North Korea and exported to the North African state.
Uranium hexafluoride is developed from uranium ore and is a key source of highly enriched uranium that is produced in centrifuges as fuel for nuclear bombs.
“This shows that a further involvement of the A.Q. Khan network and the further involvement in North Korea, not just in getting their own material, but selling critical components and supplies to other places, like Libya,” a senior official said.
Until last year, A.Q. Khan headed a clandestine network of suppliers to rogue nuclear states whose clients included Libya, Iran and North Korea.
Two officials said the source of the uranium hexafluoride is not 100 percent confirmed as being North Korea.
However, the radioactive trace material found on the cannisters has been confirmed as originating from the North Korean facility, the officials said. That assessment was based on matching the material with North Korean samples obtained by international inspectors.
The new information on the Libya-North Korea connection was presented to the governments of China, South Korea and Japan earlier this week during a visit to the region by Michael J. Green, the White House National Security Council (NSC) Asia affairs specialist.
Mr. Green and William Tobey, an NSC arms proliferation specialist, presented the intelligence in an effort to convince China and South Korea of the urgency of negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear program.
The administration officials said they are worried that disclosing the sensitive intelligence to China and South Korea will lead to the data being passed secretly to North Korea. “As a result, the North Koreans are going to be more clandestine [in their nuclear arms program] than they were before,” one official said.
Little is known about the North Korean uranium enrichment program. A North Korean official acknowledged in 2002 that the government had a uranium enrichment program, in addition to a plutonium weapons program that was supposed to have been halted under a 1994 agreement with the United States.
A State Department official said the Libyan government, which announced in December 2003 that it is terminating its covert nuclear weapons program, likely purchased the North Korean material through intermediaries and as a result may not have known of the North Korean involvement.
The disclosure of the North Korean-Libya uranium cooperation was first reported by the New York Times yesterday.
At the White House, Press Secretary Scott McClellan said North Korea’s nuclear program and weapons are “a threat to global peace and security.”
“North Korea’s actions underscore the importance of moving forward through the six-party talks,” he told reporters.
North Korea is refusing to return to the six-party talks hosted by China and including representatives of the United States, North Korea, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
North Korea has not responded to a U.S. proposal presented at the previous round of six-party talks.
Pyongyang has said it will not return to the negotiating table until the United States ends what North Korea calls “hostile” policies.
Thousands of pounds of nuclear equipment and material have been transferred to the Energy Department facility at Oak Ridge, Tenn., since the Libyan agreement to disarm.
U.S. officials, however, have said nuclear goods continued to be sent to the North African state as late as last spring, indicating the government of Col. Moammar Gadhafi may not have completely abandoned its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs.