Risky Business; PyongYang Isn't about to Give Up Its Weapons. the Challenge Now Is to Find More Effective Ways to Uncover and Squeeze the Illicit Trade in Nuclear Technology

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Byline: Mark Hosenball and Christopher Dickey

North Korean diplomats on the prowl in Berlin are easy to spot. They wear badges with portraits of "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung--and the more important the official, the bigger the badge. But tracking others suspected of shopping for the technology needed to produce a nuclear weapon is rarely so simple. The supply lines used by the world's proliferators are almost as complex as the weapons themselves, and neither the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, nor the intelligence services of the United States and other powers--let alone the international legal system--can fully meet the challenge.

"We are still grappling with the clandestine network we discovered a few years back," IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei told a conference on nuclear safeguards at the organization's Vienna headquarters last week. "When we know now that on a CD-ROM you have designs for centrifuges [capable of enriching uranium to weapons-grade], and possibly even weapons design, that makes you very worried."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Asia last week trying to persuade leaders in South Korea and China to enforce U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang for its Oct. 9 nuclear test, but the chances of the Great Leader's son, Kim Jong Il, voluntarily giving up his nation's nukes are slim at best. The challenge now is to prevent the North's program from advancing, and to stop Kim from selling his scientists' know-how to terrorists or other states. Equally important is the job of blocking the shadowy civilian suppliers of nuclear technology, who are even harder to track. Last week ElBaradei warned that in addition to the nine countries known or strongly suspected to be nuclear-weapons states, including North Korea, an additional 30 could have the technology to build the bomb "in a very short time."

AQ Khan, the "father" of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, spawned the first generation of atomic death mer-chants in the 1980s, supplying expertise, designs and parts for profit. His suppliers played a direct role in building up the nuclear programs of Libya, Iran and North Korea. But even with Khan under watch at home in Pakistan and supposedly out of business, the illicit traffic in nuclear technology continues. "The system [is] a moving target all the time," said ElBaradei.

Some of the news is good, according to IAEA investigators in Vienna, and it's important to keep that in mind amid the many scary headlines. "Suitcase bombs" and other imagined devices expected to show up on the atomic black market after the breakup of the Soviet empire have never actually surfaced. Without such ready-made weapons, the chances are slight that any terrorist organization, even Al Qaeda, could pull off a nuclear attack. Criminals have also found it impossible to get their hands on significant quantities of the "fissile materials"--plutonium or highly enriched uranium--needed for the core of a bomb. The database of the IAEA's Security Division, which tracks cases of stolen, missing and intercepted nuclear materials going back to 1993, is largely a record of scams, most of them quite clumsy, and none of them involving nearly enough material to make a nu-clear weapon.

Still, though rolling up the AQ Khan network was a noteworthy victory, that investigation was plagued by miscommunications, blown covers and legal confusions that will have to be resolved if there are to be further successes. A case in point: the area around Haag, Switzerland, near the Liechtenstein border, holds a collection of precision-engineering firms known among investigators as Vacuum Tube Valley. Friedrich Tinner, an owner or player in several of these companies and a longtime acquaintance of Khan's, denies charges he intentionally helped produce components for clandestine nuclear programs. …