In what is being called both an intelligence success and failure, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have discovered evidence North Korea secretly supplied Libya with 1.7 tons of uranium for its nuclear weapons program in 2001, the New York Times has reported.
The material, in the form of uranium hexafloride, was not sufficiently potent to use as nuclear fuel but appears to have been slated for testing in thousands of centrifuges being constructed in Libya with help from the network of secret suppliers set up by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the former head of Pakistan’s main nuclear laboratory. Centrifuges are required to concentrate the U-235 isotope, which is at a level of about 1 percent in the hexaflourine, to 90 percent for weapons grade uranium.
If IAEA intelligence is confirmed, this will be the first known instance of the North Koreans selling key ingredients for the manufacture of nuclear weapons to another country. To date, the North Koreans were believed to have restricted their involvement in major weapons’ proliferation to missile technology. It was reported that the recent train explosion in that country destroyed a shipment of missiles destined for Syria. In 2002, as reported by WorldNetDaily, a shipment of 12 North Korean Scuds were seized from a freighter in the Arabian Sea.
The giant cask of uranium hexafluoride was flown to the United States in January as part of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s agreement to end Libya’s nuclear program. As recently as March, U.S. officials were saying they believed the materials had been supplied by Pakistan. But interviews with members of the secret Khan network developed information pointing to North Korea as the likely source.
IAEA inspectors were evicted from North Korea at the end of 2002 and, since then, have had almost no contact with the country.
The volume of hexaflourine delivered would have been sufficient for the building of a single atomic bomb, but experts say that this discovery suggests North Korea may have the mining and manufacturing capacity to produce far more and that it is exporting the materials to other countries or terrorist groups seeking atomic weapons.
The Federation of American Scientists describes North Korea’s reserves as “four million tons of exploitable high-quality uranium.”
While American officials describe discovery of the Libya-North Korea link as an intelligence success, the uranium shipments went undetected since 2001, despite the the fact American satellites monitor North Korea almost more than any other nation.
“That’s a big thing,” one unidentified European diplomat told the New York Times. “It means they have a capability they have been hiding from us.”
“The North Koreans are actively involved in the network,” he continued. “We want to talk to them,” he said, adding that right now “our relationship is zero.”