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Reuters January 19, 2003

U.S. Worries North Korea Will Sell Nuclear Bombs

BY WILL DUNHAM

WASHINGTON - North Korea's arms bazaar soon may boast an enticing new product -- a nuclear bomb that U.S. officials fear could be available to the highest bidder.

With the communist nation's decision this month to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the pact aimed at curbing the spread of atomic weapons, U.S. defense officials and military analysts are worrying that North Korea might sell a nuclear bomb to a willing customer with a lot of cash.

They say North Korea, through its past arms sales, has shown a willingness to sell just about anything to anyone, and fear that potential customers for a nuclear bomb could include hostile countries or even groups such as al Qaeda.

"Look at what North Korea's doing with respect to the possible production of additional nuclear weapons," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a briefing. "Here's the world's biggest proliferator of ballistic missile technology. If it ends up with additional nuclear weapons, it might very well be in the business of proliferating them to other countries."

Rumsfeld has said the United States believes North Korea already "may have one or two" nuclear weapons.

North Korea has denied U.S. charges that it is covertly developing nuclear weapons.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "Is it a potential threat? Yes it is. Is it a likely scenario given where North Korea is now? Probably not. If they crank up production, then the situation changes."

'WILLING TO SELL VIRTUALLY ANYTHING'

Experts estimate that cash-starved North Korea sells about $500 million annually in weapons to other nations, mostly Scud missiles and Scud missile parts. Its best customers are Iran and Pakistan, experts said, but it also may have sold missiles to Yemen, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.

"Certainly by past experience, we've seen that North Korea has been willing to sell virtually anything that it has produced. It's a country that wants the hard currency. And if they have enough of whatever the (military) system is for their own security, additional ones they'll sell for sure," said Baker Spring, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

North Korea on Jan. 11 became the first country to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty, doing so just weeks after ordering the expulsion of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors. The United States is worried that North Korea will extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods en route to producing nuclear bombs.

Some experts note that while North Korea has sold missiles, there is no evidence that it has sold chemical or biological weapons, which it is thought to have in large quantities.

"I think, to a large degree, they are an arms bazaar," said Joel Wit, a former State Department official who served as the coordinator for the 1994 U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, the pact under which North Korea froze and pledged to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for receiving 500,000 tons annually of fuel oil and a project to build two nuclear reactors poorly suited for military purposes.

"But it seems even they have drawn a line somewhere, and that has to do with weapons of mass destruction," added Wit, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"What will happen over time is that as they accumulate more and more plutonium, maybe more and more weapons in their stockpile, there may be a temptation to sell some of it to others, whether they are countries or even terrorist groups."

North Korea's best-selling items are two versions of the Scud missile: the Scud-B, with a range of about 185 miles, and the Scud-C, with a range of about 340 miles. The Scud is a mobile, ballistic, surface-to-surface missile system originally developed by the Soviets in the mid-1950s. North Korea has sold hundreds of their Scud versions.

Experts said three missiles with longer ranges also are being developed by the North Koreans: the No Dong (about 620 miles); the Taepo Dong-1 (930 miles); and the Taepo Dong-2 (up to about 3,700 miles). Scores of the No Dong and Taepo Dong-1 missiles already may have been deployed by North Korea, and perhaps two dozen No Dongs have been sold to Iran and Pakistan, experts said.

"The big distinction I would draw is, as far as we know, that has all been to state actors. It has not been to the non-state terrorist groups," said Bruce Bennett, military analyst with the RAND Corp. research group.

Any nuclear weapon that North Korea may decide to sell likely will command a large price, said military analyst John Pike, director of the GlobalSecurity.org think tank.

"The bidding starts at a billion dollars," Pike said.

The world's nuclear powers are Britain, China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia and the United States; Israel also is believed to have such weapons. Israel on June 7, 1981, bombed an Iraqi nuclear power plant in a pre-emptive strike to deny Iraq the capability of building atomic bombs.

Pike said interested parties might include al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"Would Osama buy one?" Pike said. "Osama is reputed to have several hundred million dollars on hand. Would he pay half of his endowment to be able to nuke Washington? Yeah, I think he would probably pay $100 million dollars for one. How much would Saddam Hussein pay for one? I think he'd pay several billion dollars. What's he got to lose?"


Copyright 2003 Reuters