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Proof In the Pudding: DPRK Used A.Q. Khan Network to Get Centrifuges for Enrichment

Yongbyon nuclear complex

In yet more news of the reach of the “non-existent” A.Q. Khan network, the IAEA has confirmed in a recent report that North Korea used the black market network to acquire “material needed to establish a uranium enrichment facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex.”

In preparation for the upcoming meetings of the IAEA Board of Governors and General Conference, the IAEA has issued a report entitled “Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which lays out a history of concerns related to the DPRK nuclear program beginning in 1993 when the Agency was not able to verify the correctness and completeness of the DPRK’s declarations under its Safeguards Agreement concerning nuclear material and facilities and was subsequently found to be in non-compliance with its Safeguards Agreement. The most interesting bit is, of course, about the DPRK enrichment capability. While the IAEA has been unable to implement safeguards in the DPRK since 2009, when inspectors were last kicked out of Yongbyon, Dr. Sig Hecker and several other technical experts were invited to Yongbyon by the DPRK late last year to have a look at a shiny new centrifuge facility.

Following that visit, the IAEA had a chance to chat with Dr. Hecker. According to the IAEA’s report, “The Agency interviewed Dr Siegfried Hecker, a member of the group who visited the centrifuge enrichment plant, and conducted a technical review of his observations. The construction and renovation activity necessary to establish the centrifuge enrichment facility, located in Building 4 of the Nuclear Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant, took place after the departure of Agency inspectors on 15 April 2009. The layout of the centrifuge cascade and the size of the centrifuge casings observed by the group were broadly consistent with a design which has been disseminated through a clandestine supply network. However, as the Agency has no design information and no access to the facility in order to conduct design information verification, the configuration and operational status of the enrichment facility observed by the group cannot be confirmed by the Agency. Information available to the Agency indicates that some of the technology and information required for a uranium enrichment programme was acquired through the same clandestine supply network…and that the DPRK has attempted to procure from a wide range of suppliers material and equipment suitable for use within an enrichment programme, such as vacuum components, electronic equipment and dual-use, computer numerically controlled machine tools.”

This clearly points to procurement from the A.Q. Khan network which Dr. Khan continues to maintain does not exist. In a later section of the report entitled “Nuclear Assistance to Other States”, the IAEA continues to link the Khan network to illicit smuggling of nuclear material: “In December 2003, the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya informed the Agency that it had imported from the same clandestine supply network that had also assisted it with centrifuge enrichment technology and information on weapon design and development, two small cylinders containing UF6 in September 2000, and one large cylinder containing UF6 in February 2001.

Libya stated that the original agreement with the clandestine network had been for the provision of 20 tonnes of UF6.The Agency’s sampling and analysis of the UF6 indicated that one small cylinder contained natural uranium and the other contained depleted uranium; the large cylinder contained natural uranium. The Agency has established the route of transport of the UF6 cylinders, all three of which were present in the DPRK prior to their transfer to Libya. Although the Agency cannot confirm the origin of the UF6 in the cylinders, it is very likely that the natural UF6 in the large cylinder originated in the DPRK, whereas the UF6 contained in the two small cylinders did not. This would indicate that the DPRK had undeclared conversion capabilities prior to 2001.”

The Associated Press concluded that, because the centrifuge plant was set up after Pyongyang evicted the IAEA inspectors in April 2009, and “unless purchases were recent and from previously unknown suppliers”, that would indicate that the centrifuges were bought before the Khan network was dismantled in 2003 and stored until they were installed.

With recent talk of reviving the six-party talks, either with preconditions, as Washington and Seoul demand, or without, as Pyongyang insists, it should be interesting to see how the IAEA’s findings play out in that context.



Jodi Lieberman
Jodi Lieberman

Jodi Lieberman is a veteran of the arms control, nonproliferation, nuclear terrorism and nuclear safety trenches, having worked at the Departments of State, Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She has also served in an advisory capacity and as professional staff for several members of Congress in both the House and Senate as well as the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Jodi currently spends her time advocating for science issues and funding as the Senior Government Affairs Specialist at the American Physical Society. The views expressed in her posts are her views based on her professional experience but in way should be construed to represent those of her employer.