Special Report

Follow the Uranium Trail

All roads to Pyongyang lead through Beijing.

By 2.9.05

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In the wake of the Iraq war, Muammar Qaddafi decided -- for various reasons, depending upon who is asking him and when -- that giving up his illicit weapons programs was a prudent idea. The various components of those programs, now stored at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, are fairly substantial trophies in the war on terrorism that have gone largely unnoticed.

They have also proven extremely useful in piecing together intelligence on the operations of the nuclear black market of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. While the man himself is under house arrest at his mansion in Islamabad, the monster he created lives on. And results of scientific tests on Libyan uranium held in Tennessee emerged last week, confirming the worst suspicions of those who believe "Axis of Evil" is more than a useful rhetorical device, but is rather an accurate description of that monster, whose tentacles extend to the world's most dangerous regimes.

Approximately two years ago, Libya put in an order with the Khan network. The request was for 20 tons of uranium hexafluoride, a gas that can be processed for use in atomic bombs. Tripoli received 1.6 tons of the material from the Khan network -- and tests of those isotopes confirm with a 90 percent certainty that the uranium originated in North Korea.

Thus far the United States has engaged in a very delicate form of brinksmanship with the regime of Kim Jong Il. In October, Undersecretary of State John Bolton supervised a weapons of mass destruction interdiction exercise code-named "Operation Samurai" in Japan's Sagami Bay. Naval vessels, helicopter crews, and approximately 900 troops from the U.S., France, Australia, and Japan took part in a mock chase and interception on the high seas.

Observing the maneuvers from aboard the Japanese coast guard vessel Izu, Bolton noted that North Korea was the world's foremost proliferator of ballistic missile technology, and in the same breath added that the exercise was not designed to single out or provoke anyone.

"The only people who have anything to worry about from the [exercise] are the proliferators," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. negotiating partners who believe it is possible to persuade Pyongyang with honey rather than vinegar to stop its illicit weapons development and trafficking continue to urge Bush to provide Clinton administration-style "incentives" to North Korea.

Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung last week asserted that "North Korea is now in a desperate situation, economically, socially and internationally.… The U.S. must show its cards.... The U.S. has not talked about rewards for North Korea specifically, only saying there will be a 'good result' if it gives up the nuclear program. This is why North Korea does not trust [the United States]."

Unfortunately for the North Korean people, their country has always been "in a desperate situation" and will continue to be as long as the Kim dynasty (no relation to the former South Korean president) remains in power.

But convincing negotiating partners South Korea, Japan, and China of this core truth will be the hat trick -- with China, as always, playing goalie in this game. The United States sent an envoy to China last week to urge its President Hu Jintao to intensify diplomatic pressure on North Korea. Officials there, reportedly impressed by the envoy's presentation of the first hard evidence of the uranium link, acquiesced, promising to send a delegation to Pyongyang sometime after the Chinese new year, which began yesterday.

But the same Chinese officials also discouraged the United States from making public pronouncements about the North Korean situation. And notably, Bush made only a brief reference to North Korea in his State of the Union address.

It seems that any road to Pyongyang, once again, winds its way first through Beijing. And it remains to be seen if China believes it in its interest to allow safe passage.

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