IS North Korea trying to clandestinely develop nuclear weapons and the rockets to deliver them? The answer to that question, which is now absorbing world leaders, may be found in Russia.
On Wednesday, Russian intelligence officials revealed two recent incidents in which North Korean spies were caught seeking to acquire the component parts for producing nuclear weapons. Five North Koreans were expelled in March for those activities, the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service said.
In a speech in the Far Eastern Russian city of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, intelligence chief Sergei Stepashin said his agency has a ``special concern'' over the activities of North Korean secret services in Russia. He revealed that three more North Koreans were detained early this week in the Far Eastern Primorskoye territory on similar charges of seeking nuclear weapons components. A North Korean Embassy official in Moscow denied both incidents, calling them ``misinformation.''
The North Korean regime has repeatedly denied that it either has nuclear weapons or is trying to develop them. But these alleged espionage activities are only the latest in a long pattern of North Korean attempts to gain access to Russian technology and scientists to enable it to build nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them.
Despite this evidence, the Russian government has taken a cautious stance toward North Korea's recent announced withdrawal from international nuclear safeguards programs. Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said earlier this week Russia would support sanctions as an ``extreme measure.''
But yesterday Mr. Kozyrev criticized a US draft resolution for phased sanctions, saying it was contrary to an understanding reached between the US and Russian presidents. The US plan fails, he says, to give equal weight to a Russian proposal to first hold an international conference to try to resolve the controversy.
At the same time, Russian officials admit North Korea has been secretly trying to gain Russian aid for its nuclear and missile programs. In the most serious incident known to date, the North Koreans in 1992 recruited a group of 64 Russian rocket scientists employed at a secret Urals military facility which is responsible for the design and development of the Soviet Union's arsenal of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The group was stopped at the airport in late October 1992 as they were leaving, accompanied by their wives and children, to work in North Korea.
From published sources and interviews, including with a scientist in the group, the Monitor has assembled an account of the North Korean operation that suggests a well-organized effort to steal Russian secrets.
The operation began in February 1992 when a certain Anatoly Rubtsov approached the V.P. Makeyev Design Bureau of Mechanical Engineering in the closed Urals city of Miass with a proposal for researchers to work abroad in China and North Korea.
``He said he represented the Ministry of General Machine-Building,'' recounts Vadim Khvorob, one of the recruited scientists. The Ministry was responsible for the Soviet Union's nuclear arms program. Whether Mr. Rubtsov was then employed by the ministry, he worked there at one time, Mr. Khvorob says.
According to an interview with one of the scientists published in April 1993 in Moscow News, Rubtsov offered the Design Bureau a $3 million payment, with scientists receiving monthly salaries ranging from $1,500 to $4,000. The design bureau, bereft of military orders, was in desperate financial straits, and the proposal ``was met with interest,'' says Valery Tretyakov, head of the Chelyabinsk branch of the Security Ministry (the former KGB) told the Chelyabinsky Rabochi newspaper. Scientists, then getting the equivalent of $15 a month, leapt at the opportunity.
The Ministry of General Machine Building and the Security Ministry endorsed the agreement, scientist Vladimir Usachev told Moscow News. It was signed at the end of May 1992. In late August, design bureau director Igor Velichko led a group of 10 scientists to North Korea to investigate the potential working situation.
Mr. Velichko returned opposed to the project, but the group of 64 recruited scientists went ahead. Among them were specialists in missile design and construction, including ``producing the warheads of nuclear missiles,'' says Mikhail Popov, deputy editor of Chelyabinsky Rabochi, which first revealed the incident.
``The Koreans wanted us to teach, to train students about durability, pressure, dynamics,'' recalls Khvorob, who lost his job following the incident and now works for an automobile factory. ``They never talked about nuclear weapons, about missiles.''
North Korea has long been working on the design and construction of medium-range missiles, code-named Nodong. It is now developing a longer-range version, capable of reaching all of Japan. According to security official Tretyakov, North Korea was attempting ``to use Russian scientific potential to modernize its missile forces in a short period of time.'' The Russians were to be employed in a research institute to ``make the whole situation look legal.''
The group all received foreign passports through the organizer, Rubtsov. But when their names came up on the computer at passport control, they were stopped, Khvorob says. ``It was probably the KGB that stopped us,'' he adds. For two months, the group stayed at a rest house outside Moscow while Rubtsov tried to re-negotiate their departure.
On Dec. 10, 1993, Security Minister Viktor Barannikov revealed in a speech, without mentioning North Korea, the attempt to recruit the scientists to build ``combat missile complexes that could be made to carry nuclear weapons.'' Only after that were the scientists returned by train to Miass.
North Korean ``special services'' activities are not limited to weapons espionage. On June 9, according to yesterday's daily Sevodnya, two North Koreans were arrested in the Far East trying to smuggle in eight kilos of heroin, an amount likely to require the ``connivance'' of North Korean officials, the paper said.