N. Korea Weapons a 'Nuclear Nightmare'; Terrorist Groups Seen Getting Arms

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North Korea's record of weapons proliferation and terrorism has raised fears that its nuclear bombs could fall into the hands of al Qaeda terrorists, weapons specialists and diplomats said.

"A nuclear nightmare - and one that is within the realm of the possible - is the export by North Korea of nuclear material, and even nuclear weapons, to terrorists," said William Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"Certainly, groups such as al Qaeda must be attracted by the prospect of unsafeguarded nuclear material controlled by an impoverished and isolated regime which already has broken many of its international nonproliferation commitments," Mr. Potter said.

Since North Korea announced its intention on Jan. 10 to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, concern has focused on the possibility that the Stalinist nation would use spent fuel rods from a mothballed reactor to build additional nuclear bombs.

The United States believes North Korea already has two nuclear bombs to complement its massive army, potent ballistic-missile force and stockpile of biological and chemical weapons.

Although there is no hard evidence linking Osama bin Laden's terrorist network to North Korea, Pyongyang has sold missiles and technology to Iran, Pakistan, Yemen and others.

"It's a frightening scenario," said a diplomat with broad experience in Asia. "We know al Qaeda wants these weapons, and we know North Korea desperately needs hard currency."

A CIA report to Congress made public earlier this month identified North Korea as a key supplier of nuclear-, chemical- and biological-weapons materials and missiles to other nations.

The CIA stated that during the last six months of 2001, "North Korea continued to export significant ballistic-missile!related equipment, components, materials and technical expertise to the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.

"Pyongyang attaches high priority to the development and sale of ballistic missiles and equipment, and related technology. Exports of ballistic missiles and related technology are one of the North's major sources of hard currency, which fuel continued missile development and production."

The report made no connection between North Korea and weapons support to terrorist groups.

However, the report said the threat of terrorists using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons "appears to be rising."

The CIA found evidence during the war in Afghanistan of al Qaeda efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons.

That intelligence, according to the Congressional Research Service, "influenced the Bush administration to broaden the definition of the war against terrorism to include states like North Korea that potentially could supply weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda."

North Korea's mercurial leader, Kim Jong-il, has in the past used those weapons successfully as bargaining chips with the United States, Japan and South Korea to garner aid to prop up his moribund economy.

For the past decade, Washington and its allies have feared that a miscalculation by Mr. Kim, whose government earlier this week dismissed conciliatory gestures from the Bush administration, might lead to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, where 37,000 U. …