Three German businessmen have been arrested for allegedly supplying North Korea with components intended for use in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
According to prosecutors in Stuttgart, authorities in April intercepted a cargo shipment of 214 aluminum tubes weighing 22 tons in Hamburg destined for North Korea, Agence France-Presse reported, quoting the German newsweekly Der Spiegel.
Such tubes are a vital component of uranium enrichment.
Authorities and prosecutors believe the director of the company Optronic might have violated laws banning the export of materials and equipment that could be used in the production of weapons of mass destruction.
The director, who was not named by Der Spiegel, was arrested and jailed in April. Two businessmen, who also were not named, are suspected of having a part in the deal.
Der Spiegel reported the cargo was destined for the North Korean firm Nam Chon Gang.
According to the Washington Post, the aluminum tubes were part of cargo aboard the French ship Ville de Virgo, which left Hamburg harbor around April 3 bound for Asia.
The ship’s large manifest said the tubes – a last-minute cargo addition – were bound for China’s Shenyang Aircraft Corp., a manufacturer of Chinese air force fighters. German customs officials cleared the vessel for departure, but intelligence services discovered a few hours later the tubes actually were destined for North Korea.
On April 12, German and French authorities boarded the vessel and seized the aluminum tubes after tracking the ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
Such a quantity of aluminum could have yielded some 3,500 gas centrifuges for uranium enrichment, the Post reported.
“The intentions were clearly nuclear,” one Western diplomat familiar with the investigation told the paper. “They could have [become] several bombs worth of weapons-grade uranium in a year.”
Experts are studying the attempted import of the tubes to identify the design and origin of the North Korean uranium enrichment program. The Post said in recent months, North Korea’s attempts to secure parts and technology have increased in Europe.
North Korea is a “‘proxy’ nuclear state,” asserts M.D. Nalapat, director of the School of Geopolitics of the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in India, in an analysis for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.
Along with Pakistan, North Korea “can lay claim to having anything but the most rudimentary indigenous technological base,” Nalapat said, explaining that in order to create viable nuclear programs, nations need “a mix of both talent and infrastructure that is available to few states.”
He suggested North Korea and Pakistan were provided nuclear know-how by China.
Both “are countries that have deliberately been provided with nuclear devices and missiles systems by an advanced country, the People’s Republic of China,” he wrote. “It is no accident that Pyongyang acts as a geopolitical pressure point on Japan, as Pakistan does on India. Japan and India, after all, are Beijing’s two primary rivals in Asia.
“As nuclear-capable, missile-producing states, North Korea and Pakistan – the two proxies – demand the attention of Japan and India, thus lowering the attention that they can pay to China, the source of the proxies’ technology,” Nalapat said.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported yesterday the United States is stepping up military pressure on North Korea by staging joint naval exercises off northeastern Australia next month.
The exercises, involving the U.S., Australian, and possibly other navies, are designed to providing training to interdict materials being shipped to and from the Stalinist regime.
The message is clear, say administration officials: North Korea should dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
The next set of talks between the U.S., North Korea and other nations are set to take place Aug. 27. China, Russia, South Korea and Japan also have participated.
Last month, Australian media, quoting Chinese sources, reported North Korea was poised to construct at least one nuclear missile by year’s end.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported Beijing believes Pyongyang has reprocessed enough plutonium for at least one weapon.