The reported export by North Korea of the uranium material needed to build warheads has escalated the stakes in the Korean nuclear crisis, threatening the six-party talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its program.
That view emerges as experts investigate the alleged shipment by North Korea to Pakistan of uranium hexafluoride, the gaseous solution that feeds into the centrifugees that produces enriched uranium, far more powerful than the plutonium-based warheads North Korea now has.
"It's a very serious issue and a clear violation of the 'red line,' " says Cheon Seong Whun, an engineer who specializes in arms control at the Korea Institute of National Unification. While "nobody has set a 'red line' " beyond which North Korea must not go in proliferation, he views the export of any type of nuclear material or technology as violating the general understanding that the North may export missiles but not nuclear material or technology.
The ultimate effect, Mr. Cheon says, "will increase the justification of the United States and other Western countries to take specific action." The diplomatic vehicle would be the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an effort spearheaded by the US and its Pacific allies to justify interdictions of ships suspected of carrying nuclear technology.
The report from Pakistan "is consistent with what the United States learned more than two years ago when North Korea admitted it had a uranium-enrichment program," says a source close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. But "people hadn't known they had that [much] expertise," that is, the ability to turn raw uranium mined in North Korea into uranium hexaflouride.
It was North Korea's acknowledgment in October 2002, during a visit to Pyongyang by James Kelly, US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, of a program for developing nuclear warheads with highly enriched uranium that triggered the current nuclear standoff. Intelligence analysts are uncertain, though, how close North Korea is to building a uranium-based warhead.
Gary Samore, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says the fact that North Korea would sell uranium hexafluoride, known as UF6, "is a very bad sign." It means "they could be willing to sell anything if the price is right."
South Korean analysts, shocked that North Korean scientists know how to produce the compound, predict an inevitable impact on the next round of talks in Beijing. China has hosted two rounds of dialogue, in August last year and again in February, attended by the United States, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas.
"I think it will affect the six-party talks," Cheon says. "There's no doubt the United States and Japan will raise this issue." North Korea "will deny everything," he adds, "but this news adds one more problem."
The timing of the export of uranium hexafluoride suggests that North Korea had gone quite far in its uranium program before Mr. Kelly's visit to Pyongyang.
Pakistani investigators told the IAEA that 1.7 tons of UF6 were shipped to Libya in 2001, a year before Kelly presented North Korean officials with proof that North Korea was conducting a uranium program in violation of the 1994 Geneva agreement. North Korea had shut down its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon under terms of the agreement but has since restarted the reactor and has said it is building warheads.
The Pakistanis say Libya acquired North Korea's UF6 "on the black market," says a source close to the IAEA, indicating that Libya obtained it through the network dominated by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's atomic bomb.
Mr. Khan has confessed his role in selling Pakistan's nuclear technology to a number of clients, including North Korea. But he has not been reported to have identified North Korea as exporting its own nuclear material. North Korea was reportedly the original source for Libya's UF6 after Libya abandoned its nuclear program this year.
South Korean officials, pressing for North-South reconciliation, appear reluctant to jeopardize six-party talks by raising the issue of the uranium hexafluoride, much less endorsing any program for boarding vessels from North Korea suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
"We share the purpose and spirit of the proliferation security initiative," says Oh Joon, director general for international organizations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Still, he says, "We are not participating in PSI considering our geostrategic situation with neighboring North Korea."
As for the reported North Korean shipment of uranium hexafluoride, Mr. Oh says: "I don't know if this constitutes escalation since we all know North Korea has uranium as a resource."
South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, returning here from Moscow, acknowledges that the next round of six-party talks may be delayed. In the meanwhile, he appears more interested in persuading the US to tone down the rhetoric than in raising yet another obstacle to reconciliation.
"The North is strongly resisting the CVID," says Mr. Ban, referring to the initials used by US officials for "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of North Korea's nuclear weapons, as demanded by Washington. "We are trying to find out if there is any other alternative wording, without changing the basic principles. It's something that still needs to be discussed closely with the US."