U.S. envoy: North Korea nukes went to Libya
Stung by the lapses of intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs, a top U.S. diplomat insisted Thursday that Washington has concrete evidence North Korean nuclear material went to Libya since shuttered atomic arms operation.
He warned that North Korea could still be a risk for a further spread of atomic arms technology and materials.
Christopher Hill, the main U.S. envoy on the North Korea nuclear standoff, said that even though Libya got the nuclear material from a Pakistani black market nuclear network, the North Koreans must have known where their material would end up.
It was the strongest on-the-record claim by a U.S. official that such evidence exists.
For months, U.S. officials have stopped short of saying publicly they had physical evidence about a North Korea-Libya link. That raised questions about Washington's case, especially after the intelligence failures on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Hill didn't say what the evidence was or where it came from. But Libya agreed with the U.S. and British governments in late 2003 to shut down its programs to develop atomic and chemical weapons and allowed in outside inspectors.
Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency have said that Libya obtained nuclear material from Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. The U.N. agency said Thursday its inspectors are still interviewing Libyans about the atomic weapons work, but all Libya's nuclear equipment has been destroyed or dismantled and removed from the country.
Asked about Hill's comments linking the material in Libya to North Korea, Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, said: "It's a possibility, but it's difficult for us to verify because we no longer have any inspectors there" in North Korea.
In Washington, a State Department official who tracks dangerous weapons said the Libyans did not necessarily know the origin of the material.
Attempts to reach officials in Libya for comment were not successful.
Hill wouldn't go so far as to say U.S. intelligence had proof of direct contact or payments between Libya and North Korea. But he said Pyonyang, which claims to have nuclear weapons, might not be done pitching its atomic wares around the world.
Hill said there were some signs of movement toward resuming six-nation talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament, referring to this week's visit to China by Kang Sok Ju, the North's first vice foreign minister who has been directly involved in the nuclear issue.
However, Hill said that China had not shared details of the visit with Washington and that there were no immediate indications North Korea was ready to return to the negotiations.
Some of the other countries in the talks have urged the United States to offer something to North Korea to lure it back to the talks.
But Hill reaffirmed that Washington had no plan to sweeten its current proposals, which include security guarantees and aid for North Korea in exchange for the complete dismantling of its atomic weapons program.
Any change to that offer could come only if the North returns to the talks, he said.
"We're not asking them to come out with their hands up," Hill said. "We're just asking them to come to the table."
Hill said U.S. officials weren't discussing seeking sanctions against North Korea. But, while not specifying any deadline for the North to return to the talks, he hinted Washington's patience will eventually run out.
"This is not an issue we can walk away from," he said.