North Korea and Iraq’s 400 Nuclear Scientists
President George W. Bush views the North Korean nuclear crisis as one that can be resolved peacefully through diplomacy. US Secretary of State Colin Powell sees no crisis with North Korea at all. When Sunday, December 29, the CNN Late Edition anchorman Wolf Blitzer asked Powell in astonishment how he could deny a crisis when US intelligence reports Pyongyang as having at least 2-3 nuclear bombs, the secretary interrupted him, saying: “Don’t be so breathless!”
Additional signals emanated from Washington during the week that the Bush administration is willing to play down Kim Jong-Il’s nuclear program, while bent on all-out military confrontation with Iraq. Critics of this inconsistency in Washington are hard put to explain it.
Bush, like previous US presidents, has until now been at pains to maintain a delicate policy balance in the Korean Peninsula, in the same way as US administrations have always sought to chart a safe course through the China-Taiwan minefield. However, North Korea threatens to become an Asian power in its own right. It fields an immense army of 1 million troops, plus a formidable rocket and artillery arsenal. The CIA now believes Pyongyang holds two nuclear weapons, together with the ability to build five or more in the next six months.
However, North Korea’s most powerful secret weapon, exposed solely by DEBKA-Net-Weekly in issues 82 (October 25, 2002), 85 (November 15, 2002) and 90 (on December 12, 2002), is its multiple stake in the Middle East.
Kim Jong-Il’s uranium enrichment facilities were situated until 4-5 months ago in Iran, at the covert Arak and Natanz sites; at least one of his nukes, if not two, were manufactured there.
Therefore, any Asian framework accord for the disposal of the North Korean nuclear program would fall far short of a solution to the crisis. Even if the North Korean ruler were to pledge solemnly to shut down his weapons-grade nuclear facilities at home, they would still go on functioning in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
This dilemma acquires a further dimension with the discovery by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources of an overlap between the Korean and Iraqi nuclear crises. That overlap is located in Libya’s al Kufra oasis, where some 400 of Iraq’s leading nuclear scientists and technicians, the ones the UN arms inspectors are seeking to interview, are ensconced.
The Iraqi scientists are working closely with their North Korean colleagues on the development of a nuclear bomb to be shared by Libya, Iraq, Egypt and North Korea. Sources who spoke to us on condition of anonymity report too that Iraqi nuclear laboratory equipment, hunted high and low by the inspectors, have also been secreted out of Iraq to Libya.
One Libyan-North Korean reactor, if not two, are ticking over busily in the secret subterranean nuclear city built over the last decade at the al Kufra Oasis not far from the Egyptian frontier.
The United States has been told about this facility. In 1996, the Clinton administration received intelligence data from surveillance satellite photography of the oasis.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly has been given access to a first-hand report on the subject from an author whose identity we may not disclose:
In 1996, while working with Landsat photos from space, I discovered an area of Libya near the region called al-Kufra, which appeared to my eyes to have been leveled into a huge triangular area, far, far from any large populated areas. My instincts told me that I had found a possible Libyan atomic testing area. Through an Australian friend and his contacts with the Defense Dept., I was able to get a report to the DoD and the Defense Intelligence Agency. My report included photos and enhancements of same, which indicated a huge military industrial buildup. We were informed that it went to the top and we never heard a thing about it again…
“The top” then was President Bill Clinton.
The present US administration seems not to have established a clear policy line on the al Kufra nuclear installations or the deep North Korean and Iraqi involvement in the Libyan program.
However, Washington might be forced to come to some decision quite soon.
Assuming Saddam Hussein agrees to go into exile in Libya – and many intelligence agencies believe that a grand palace compound is under construction to accommodate him in Tripoli – will he and his large military and intelligence entourage be in control of the 400 Iraqi nuclear experts and gain access to the al Kufra nuclear program?
Most intelligence sources agree that the Iraqi ruler’s fortune, stashed away in Gulf and Far Eastern banks, is large enough to fully support those experts’ salaries and the expense of keeping them on the job. If Saddam is permitted to escape Iraq to save his country from war, yet remains in control of a functioning nuclear program, he will retain both prestige in the Arab world and a powerful card for blackmail and extortion that the United States will not be able to brush off. In some extreme circumstances, he may even threaten to turn this card over to al Qaeda.
Egypt‘s slice of nuclear cake
Last June, 2002, a set of intelligence reports was compiled in Washington laying bare Egypt’s role in the al Kufra nuclear program, as well as the Egyptian-Libyan-Iraqi-North Korean partnership in the project.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources, Egypt was described as the main source of financing for the program, with Saudi assistance. Most of the Iraqi experts transited Saudi Arabia and Egypt with their families before arriving in Libya. A smaller group traveled through Yemen, Sudan and southern Egypt, making directly for al Kufra.
More recent intelligence data reveals North Korean and Chinese uranium mining experts invited by the Egyptian government to make secret surveys of uranium deposits in the Sinai Peninsular mountains of Umm Bugma. The site lies north of Egypt’s Abu Rodeis oil port and its Suez Gulf oil fields.
Forty years ago, when the Cold War was at its peak, Egypt hired Polish geologists for a similar survey. They ran a test drilling until it was stopped in 1967 by Israel’s conquest of the Sinai Peninsula.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources now report that the North Korean and Chinese geologists recommend that Egypt go ahead and exploit the uranium deposits to be found on two Umm Bugma mountains: Gabal Atairtir el-Dahmi, 1,047 meters above sea level, and Gabal Abu Alaqa, 704 meters above sea level. At both places they report the uranium is highly concentrated and of the necessary quality for producing enriched uranium.
Those intelligence reports stress that Egypt is eager to begin mining the uranium and intends shipping the ore for processing across the border to Al Kufra.
The question now is how long will it take for Iraq, Egypt and Libya to achieve the first all-Arab nuclear device. Since they are dependent on North Korean assistance, that question must be addressed to Kim Jong-Il.
While US officials prefer to look the other way on al Kufra – so as not to hold up any possibly deal with North Korea and to remain focused on the Iraq war – the North Korean ruler will certainly see the advantage of using its existence to enhance his leverage in any diplomatic bargaining with the Americans over his nuclear program.