Diplomacy Proliferation Six-Party Talks

U-Tubed! Enriched uranium found on N. Korean sample

slide32_600.jpgSay it aint so.

U.S. scientists have discovered traces of enriched uranium on smelted aluminum tubing provided by North Korea, apparently contradicting Pyongyang’s denial that it had a clandestine nuclear program, according to U.S. and diplomatic sources. [Washington Post, Glenn Kessler]

But where and when did we find this incriminating sample?

The United States has long pointed to North Korea’s acquisition of thousands of aluminum tubes as evidence of such a program, saying the tubes could be used as the outer casing for centrifuges needed to spin hot uranium gas into the fuel for nuclear weapons. North Korea has denied that contention and, as part of a declaration on its nuclear programs due by the end of the year, recently provided the United States with a small sample to demonstrate that the tubes were used for conventional purposes.

The elemental question we face again with North Korea is just how much we really want to know.

The discovery of the uranium traces has been closely held by senior U.S. officials concerned that disclosure would expose intelligence methods and complicate the diplomatic process. North Korea has steadfastly refused to open up about its past practices, simply asserting that it is not engaged in inappropriate activities. However, the uranium finding will force U.S. negotiators to demand a detailed explanation from Pyongyang. [emphasis mine]

I can imagine that some people would rather not have had this story come out, the way the Syria story did, knowing that it would only strengthen the arguments of the skeptics. My own speculation is that the story had to come out eventually because someone would have leaked it.
I wonder what David Albright will have to say about this, given his devout atheism about the existence of a North Korean highly enriched uranium (HEU) program.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said the equipment did not need to be in the same room but could have picked up the uranium traces from a person who was exposed to both sets of equipment. He said that several Energy Department laboratories have highly sophisticated methods of detecting the nuclear material from items that had been thoroughly decontaminated.
“There is a real art in extracting enriched uranium from samples,” Albright said. The labs can detect micrograms of enriched uranium, which he said is “way beyond what any normal radiation detector would pick up.” However, he said, such minute quantities could easily have come from other sources.

Ultimately, he said, it might be possible to match up the enriched uranium discovered on the North Korean tubes with information known about the Pakistani material discovered in Iran to determine whether the enriched uranium on the tubes had been inadvertently transferred. [WaPo]

That seems unlikely. Assume, for the sake of argument, that the traces of HEU on those tubes turn out to be a perfect match for A.Q. Khan’s fingerprints. We know that Khan stole Pakistan’s centrifuge design from the Dutch, founded Khan Laboratories, designed the P-3 centrifuge, and then “gave” 20 complete P-3 centrifuges, centrifuge components, and centrifuge designs to North Korea, along with other nuclear technology.

From this, we can infer that the North Korean and Pakistani centrifuge designs were essentially identical and used the same parts. I also infer, from Kessler’s piece, that the tubes themselves were similar to or identical to those used in P-3’s; otherwise, this wouldn’t be big news. So if North Korea’s source of aluminum tubes was a uranium-soaked Pakistani laboratory, it’s at least strong circumstantial evidence that North Korea meant to use them for the same purpose.

Of course, that assumption — that the enriched uranium traces got onto the tubes in Pakistan, seems unlikely. Presumably, a shadowy axis-of-evil nuclear scientist of above-average intelligence would look for a less suspicious, uranium-trace-free source for its tubes. For obvious reasons, Khan’s own procurement network was decentralized and relied on a global network of suppliers for itself and its clients. The Iranians, for example, were smart enough to get their aluminum tubes through Russian suppliers. So why would any North Korean procurer buy aluminum tubes from the world’s most suspicious source, especially if its purpose was “peaceful?”

As Iraq intel critics often note, there are other uses for aluminum tubes of similar specifications, but as they tend not to point out as often, those other uses mainly involve rocket fuselages. Thus, North Korea’s continued possession would still violate UNSCR 1695. Not that anyone cares, of course.

The evidence Kim Jong Il is lying to us just keeps piling up, as does the evidence that when it comes to foreign policy — with the exception of Iraq — the third Clinton Administration has already begun. To the extent that the Bush Administration still clings to Foggy Bottom, it seems more interested in diplomacy for the sake legacy-building than for the sake of verifiable disarmament.

[Part 2 here]

See also:   Ampontan’s take.


  1. Great post. It’s time that Japan and the U.S. pressured China to really step up to the plate and eradicate the despicable Kim Jong-Il. Three days is about how long it would take for China to do the job.


  2. We know that Khan stole Pakistan’s centrifuge design from the Dutch

    True, but that’s not the whole story. The Dutch authorities knew what Khan was up to, but the CIA intervened and kept the Dutch from arresting Khan.


  3. This issue has been fully in the news in the Netherlands some two years ago (from August 9th, 2005). The prime minister of the time (Ruud Lubbers) stated in a radio-interview that the government had decided not to arrest Khan on advice/strong suggestion of the CIA. The Dutch government actually thought of arresting Khan twice, one time in 1975 and again in 1988.

    The Dutch secret service (AIVD) still denies. Ruud Lubbers (Minister of Economic Affairs in 1975 and Prime Minister in 1988) affirmed the case however. The minister of Justice in 2005 (then Piet Hein Donner) eventually had to give in an also affirm the case. Everything started because of an article in the New York Times.


  4. The NYT piece says that the CIA intervened to stop the arrest … because it wanted to continue following Khan’s trail and disrupt the larger network rather than bag one lone scientist. That’s a far different thing than what your comment suggested — that the CIA had decided not to prevent Khan and Pakistan from building the bomb. Good thing, too, because the CIA appears to have known very little about Khan’s network at the time.

    As for Lubbers, after the sordid circumstances of his departure as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I’ll just say that I question his reliability.



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