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Scientist Says He Was Shown North Korean Nuke Devices

By David E. Sanger

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear technology around the world, has told his interrogators that during a trip to North Korea five years ago he was taken to a secret underground nuclear plant and shown what he described as three nuclear devices, according to Asian and U.S. officials who have been briefed by the Pakistanis.

If Khan’s report is true, this would mark the first time that any foreigner has reported seeing North Korean nuclear devices. Past CIA assessments of North Korea’s nuclear capability have been based on knowledge of its plutonium production and assessments that North Korea had the technical ability to turn plutonium into weapons.

Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani bomb, said he was allowed to inspect the weapons briefly, according to the account that Pakistan has begun to provide in classified briefings to nations within reach of North Korea’s missiles. U.S. intelligence officials caution that they cannot say whether Khan had the time, expertise or equipment to verify the claims. But they note that the number of plutonium weapons roughly accords with previous CIA estimates that North Korea had one or two weapons and the ability to produce more.

White House officials declined to discuss the intelligence reports, saying through a spokesman that the subject was “too sensitive.” But Vice President Dick Cheney was fully briefed on Khan’s assertions before he left for Asia over the weekend, and he is expected to cite the intelligence to China’s leaders on Tuesday to press the point that negotiations over disarming North Korea are going too slowly, administration officials said. They expect him to argue that the Bush administration is losing patience and may seek stronger action including sanctions at the United Nations

Khan also told Pakistani officials that he began dealing with North Korea on the sale of equipment for a second way of producing nuclear weapons --through the enrichment of uranium, as opposed to plutonium -- as early as the late 1980s. But he said he did not begin major shipments to the North until the late 1990s, after the country’s plutonium program was “frozen” under an agreement with the United States. North Korea has since renounced that agreement.

According to officials who have reviewed the intelligence reports from Pakistan, Khan admitted that he shipped to North Korea both the designs for the centrifuges used to enrich uranium and a small number of complete centrifuges. He also provided a “shopping list” of equipment that North Korea needed to produce thousands of the machines.

As the intelligence briefing by the Pakistani officials has flowed through South Korea and Japan, it has set off a number of alarms among senior Asian officials. Until now, they have tried to finesse the subject of whether North Korea is already a nuclear power, or was simply bluffing as it works to develop weapons. China, in particular, has cast doubt on the American and South Korean claims that North Korea was developing a uranium weapon, perhaps hoping to take at least one problem off the table after a year of so-far fruitless negotiations in Beijing.

“Asia can ignore a lot of things when it deems it convenient,” said Kurt Campbell, a senior defense official in the Clinton administration.