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North Korea Nuke Program Caught By U.S. Intelligence

By Joby Warrick
THE WASHINGTON POST -- North Korea’s surprise admission of a secret nuclear program was prompted by a U.S. intelligence discovery that the isolated state was trying to acquire large amounts of high-strength aluminum, a metal used in gas-centrifuge plants for enriching uranium for a bomb, weapons experts and officials familiar with the finding said Thursday.

The attempted acquisition of the metal helped U.S. analysts conclude that North Korea was constructing a secret uranium-enrichment facility somewhere in the country, which North Korean officials are reported to have then confirmed in talks with a U.S. diplomat earlier this month.

It’s not known what progress North Korea has made toward enriching uranium, or which other countries or companies have assisted in the pursuit of uranium-enrichment technology.

“Centrifuges are hard to build, and North Korea could not have done it without outside help,” said David Albright, president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Albright, a physicist, has tracked North Korea’s nuclear program since the late 1980s and was a weapons inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Rumors about a secret uranium-enrichment facility have circulated for years, but the discovery of the attempted aluminum procurement was described as the first hard evidence that a program was actually underway. Officials familiar with discovery described the evidence as “convincing,” but declined to discuss details, including where the metals originated or how much North Korea has acquired.

Such attempts to procure a specific metal or technology are regarded by nonproliferation specialists as important tip-offs that countries are attempting to build weapons for which they lack the materials and know-how. Similar purchases have been cited as evidence that Iran and Iraq are also pursuing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile technology.

In addition to tracking the aluminum, U.S. intelligence officials had received reports of significant construction activity that appeared related to a uranium-enrichment facility, knowledgeable sources said.

U.S. officials have declined to reveal the location in question. Previously, speculation about enrichment plants had centered on three locations, including a suspected underground facility in Changang province known as Hagap, said Daniel Pinkston, a senior researcher at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

Further production of plutonium was banned under a 1994 agreement in which Pyongyang agreed to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons in exchange for foreign assistance in building civilian nuclear reactors.