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Expert says N.Korea sends clear message with its tests: 'Nukes for sale'

By Foster Klug

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 08:48 a.m. HST, Mar 19, 2013

SEOUL » North Korea's nuclear test last month wasn't just a show of defiance and national pride; it also serves as advertising. The target audience, analysts say, is anyone in the world looking to buy nuclear material.

Though Pyongyang has threatened to launch nuclear strikes on the U.S., the most immediate threat posed by its nuclear technology may be North Korea's willingness to sell it to nations that Washington sees as sponsors of terrorism. The fear of such sales was highlighted this week, when Japan confirmed that cargo seized last year and believed to be from North Korea contained material that could be used to make nuclear centrifuges, which are crucial to enriching uranium into bomb fuel.

The dangerous message North Korea is sending, according to Graham Allison, a nuclear expert at the Harvard Kennedy School: "Nukes are for sale."

North Korea launched a long-range rocket in December, which the U.N. called a cover for a banned test of ballistic missile technology. On Feb. 12, it conducted its third underground nuclear test, which got Pyongyang new U.N. sanctions.

Outside nuclear specialists believe North Korea has enough nuclear material for several crude bombs, but they have yet to see proof that Pyongyang can build a warhead small enough to mount on a missile. The North, however, may be able to help other countries develop nuclear expertise right now, as it is believed to have done in the past.

"There's a growing technical capability and confidence to sell weapons and technology abroad, without fear of reprisal, and that lack of fear comes from (their) growing nuclear capabilities," Joel Wit, a former U.S. State Department official, said at a recent nuclear conference in Seoul.

Pyongyang says it needs nuclear weapons because of what it calls a hostile U.S. policy aimed at invading the North. The U.S., South Korea and others say North Korean brinksmanship meant to win aid and other concessions is the real motive. Even China, North Korea's most important ally, opposes its neighbor's nuclear ambitions.

North Korean nuclear sales earn the impoverished country money that can be pumped back into weapons development, analyst Shin Beomchul at the South Korean-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul said.

Its growing capabilities could make North Korea more attractive to buyers, especially if it is determined that highly enriched uranium was used in last month's test.

Proliferation worries have ramped up since late 2010, when North Korea unveiled a long-suspected uranium enrichment operation. North Korea's first two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, were suspected to be fueled by its limited plutonium stockpile. A crude uranium bomb is easier to produce than one made with plutonium, and uranium production is easier to conceal.

Little is known about North Korea's uranium program, but Washington and others are keenly interested in whether it is producing highly enriched uranium for bombs and whether uranium was used in the third test — two things suspected, but not yet confirmed, by outsiders.

A nuclear test using highly enriched uranium "would announce to the world — including potential buyers — that North Korea is now operating a new, undiscovered production line for weapons-usable material," Allison, the Harvard nuclear specialist, wrote in a New York Times op-ed after the North's test.

U.S. officials have hinted that retaliation would follow should Washington discover North Korean cooperation behind any atomic attack on an American city or U.S. ally.

Pyongyang's nuclear transfers and any use of weapons of mass destruction "would be considered a grave threat to the United States and our allies, and we will hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences," President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, said last week.

U.S. officials have long tracked North Korean dealings in nuclear and weapons technology. Sanctions have cut down on missile sales, but Iran and Syria, two countries seen by Washington as rogue actors, may continue to be customers.

In November, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization proposed observing North Korea's nuclear test, the Japanese news agency Kyodo reported, citing an unidentified Western diplomatic source privy to Pyongyang-Tehran ties.

North Korea is believed to have helped Syria build what senior U.S. intelligence officials called a secret nuclear reactor meant to produce plutonium. In 2007, Israeli jets bombed the structure in a remote Syrian desert.

Japan's government said Monday that it has determined that a shipment believed to have originated in North Korea violated U.N. sanctions because it contained material that could be used to make nuclear centrifuges.

The shipment of an aluminum alloy was seized from a Singaporean-flagged ship transiting Tokyo last August. The ship was reportedly bound for Myanmar from the Chinese port of Dalian, although Japanese government officials didn't confirm Myanmar as the destination.

Japan's chief government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said officials searched the ship because they believed it carried North Korean cargo. News reports said the United States tipped off Japan. Suga said officials had determined in subsequent analyses that the rods were made of an alloy that suggests they were intended for use in a nuclear centrifuge.

Suga said the seizure was the first to be conducted under a law Japan passed in 2010 to clamp down on the movement of materials that could be used for nuclear weapons development being brought into, or exported from, North Korea.

The murkiness of the clandestine nuclear trade is a major worry. It's difficult to know how a buyer would use atomic material or know-how, or where material could end up after being sold.

"The terrorist threat of an improvised nuclear device delivered anonymously and unconventionally by a boat or a truck across our long and unprotected borders is one against which we have no certain deterrent or defensive response," Robert Gallucci, a former senior U.S. diplomat who negotiated a U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal used to defuse a nuclear crisis in the 1990s, said late last month in Seoul.

"For Americans, this threat is far greater than the unlikely threat that may someday be posed by North Korean nuclear weapons delivered by a ballistic missile," he said.


Eric Talmadge in Tokyo and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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loquaciousone wrote:
I'm sure China is happy having this nut as a neighbor. Time will come when they will have to chose the better of two evils.. this loose cannon looney tune or a USA backed Korea.
on March 19,2013 | 07:15AM
hanalei395 wrote:
"A USA backed Korea"? US troops in N.Korea? That will never happen. China won't have it.
on March 19,2013 | 10:20AM
NanakuliBoss wrote:
Ahhh, for regular posters like Hana and loq, you guys should read before u write. Hana, Loq means a US backed S.Korea, which we all understand.
on March 19,2013 | 11:31AM
hanalei395 wrote:
You must understand that there are two Korea(s) ....and everybody understands that the U.S. ALREADY BACKS the S. Korea. And will ALWAYS do so. ........ Loq just said "Korea".
on March 19,2013 | 11:49AM
hanalei395 wrote:
It looks like Nana now "understands".
on March 19,2013 | 01:20PM
hanalei395 wrote:
Speaking of two evils ...America's Two Evils, will always be remembered, will ONLY be remembered, for what they did 10 years ago today, in Iraq.
on March 19,2013 | 03:37PM
localguy wrote:
Our nuke carrying submarines could blanket North Korea with strikes before their missile even comes close to the USA. What is Kim thinking. Oh wait, he isn't. Rookie hasn't got a clue what he is up against. Want to bet our subs already have his puzzle palace as a main strike point. Be afraid Kimmy boy, be very afraid.
on March 19,2013 | 07:28AM
livinginhawaii wrote:
Selling nuclear technology is a typical response when a blockade and sanctions are in effect. Was Barry unaware of this? These tactics have never worked on North Korea or Iran. The Israelis know what will work.
on March 19,2013 | 07:44AM
hanalei395 wrote:
What the Israelis THINK "will work", is that the U.S. will join them in any fight against Iran. (And on this 10th anniversary of the Bush War, Iran has a NEW ally... Iraq).
on March 19,2013 | 01:12PM
cojef wrote:
Scare tactics to justify attacking North Korea. Remember the 'weapons of mass destruction" scare ploy of the early 90's. There is truth in the scare and terrorist would sure want it, but money talks and bull walks, so do we know who the monied people or governments are. Check with money exchangers, they know how to transfer cash world-wide. You bet, a damn good movie plot in the making, or already in motion.
on March 19,2013 | 08:36AM
cojef wrote:
oops my comments was to scary for predicting a war scenerio. like the early 90"s WMD scare.
on March 19,2013 | 08:37AM
hanalei395 wrote:
Your comment just now didn't work. It was the 2003 WMD scare. And just before Bush started his ill-fated Iraq war, he KICKED OUT the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, looking for WMD. Your attempt to blame a "war scenario" on Clinton ... was weird.
on March 19,2013 | 12:15PM
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