Washington, Dec. 28 (ANI): Pakistan's disgraced nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan has revealed that the North Korean Government opened a second way to build nuclear weapons as early as the 1990s.
According to the Washington Post, Khan claimed that Pyongyang might have been enriching uranium on a small scale by 2002, with "maybe 3,000 or even more" centrifuges, and that Pakistan helped the country with vital machinery, drawings and technical advice for at least six years.
Though Khan's account could not be independently corroborated, a U.S. intelligence official and a diplomat said his information adds to their suspicions that North Korea has long pursued the enrichment of uranium in addition to making plutonium for bombs, and may help explain Pyongyang's assertion in September that it is in the final stages of such enrichment.
Khan's account of the pilot plant, which he says North Korea built without help, is included in a narrative that depicts relations between the two countries' scientists as exceptionally close for nearly a decade.
Khan says, for example, that during a visit to North Korea in 1999, he toured a mountain tunnel.
There, his hosts showed him boxes containing components of three finished nuclear warheads, which could be assembled for use atop missiles within an hour.
"While they explained the construction [design of their bombs], they quietly showed me the six boxes" containing split cores for the warheads, as well as "64 ignitors/detonators per bomb packed in 6 separate boxes," Khan is quoted, as saying.
His visit occurred seven years before the country's first detonation, prompting some current and former U.S. officials to say that Khan's account, if correct, suggests North Korea's achievements were more advanced than previously known, and that the country may have more sophisticated weapons, or a larger number, than earlier estimated.
But Siegfried S. Hecker, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory director who was allowed to see some North Korean plutonium during a visit to its nuclear facilities in January 2004, said he remains unconvinced about Pyongyang having enough fissile material on hand to make such weapons as far back as 1999.
Hecker said Khan may have tried to get himself "off the hook, to say what [he] . . . did was not that bad because these guys already had nuclear weapons. That's a nice way to cover his own tracks."
Since some of Khan's actions were exposed in 2003 and 2004, top Pakistani officials have called him a rogue proliferator.
Khan said, however, there was a tacit agreement between the two governments that his laboratory "would advise and guide them with the centrifuge program and that the North Koreans would help Pakistan in fitting the nuclear warhead into the Ghauri missile" -- his country's name for its version of the Nodong missiles that Pakistan bought from North Korea.
Pakistan gave North Korea vital equipment and software, and in return North Korea also "taught us how to make Krytrons" -- extremely fast electrical switches that are used in nuclear detonations and are tightly controlled in international commerce.
Contradicting Pakistani statements that the government had no involvement in such sensitive transfers, Khan says top political and Army officials, including then-Lt. Gen. Khalid Kidwai, who currently oversees Pakistan's atomic arsenal, approved his assistance.
Khan, 73, is under house arrest in Islamabad. He has threatened to disclose sensitive information if he remains in confinement.
Pakistani officials in Washington dismissed Khan's assertions as baseless, without responding to questions about Kidwai's role.
"Pakistan, as a nuclear weapons state, has always acted with full responsibility and never engaged itself in any activity in violation of the non-proliferation norms," the embassy said in a statement.
Song Ryol Han, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, denied that his country had a uranium program before last spring or that it ever discussed the issue "with Dr. Khan in Pakistan."
A U.S. government nuclear expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said constructing a plant of this size would probably be seen as "a very serious commitment" to making nuclear arms with a method that is hard to detect.
Several former U.S. officials, after being informed of Khan's statements, said they undermine North Korea's 1994 pledge to work with the United States "for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula." (ANI)