Bush administration officials say they're not surprised by a published report Tuesday that North Korea displayed what it said were nuclear weapons to renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan during a visit to that country five years ago.
Citing intelligence considerations, U.S. officials are declining to confirm details of The New York Times report, which says Abdul Qadeer Khan was shown what were said to have been three North Korean nuclear bombs during a visit there in the late 1990s.
However, they say Pakistan has provided the United States with "significant amounts of information" on the proliferation network of A.Q. Khan derived from recent interrogation of the nuclear scientist, and that it only reinforces U.S. assumptions about Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities.
Mr. Khan, known as the father of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, confessed in February to selling nuclear technology to North Korea, Iran and Libya and was immediately pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf on condition that he cooperate with an investigation of those activities.
The New York Times said its account of Mr. Khan's visit to North Korea was provided by U.S. and Asian sources who had been briefed on it by Pakistani officials. If Mr. Khan's account is true, it would be the first time that any foreigner had reported inspecting an actual North Korean nuclear weapon.
At a news briefing in Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the newspaper account is in line with U.S. intelligence assessments of the North Korean nuclear program. "North Korea has pursued and is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability," he said. "In our view there's been no question of this. It's been the long-standing intelligence community assessment that North Korea has produced one, possibly two, plutonium-based nuclear weapons. We would note that Mr. Khan has admitted to assisting North Korea's [uranium] enrichment program, and his admissions have put the lie to North Korea's denials."
Mr. Boucher noted that North Korea has in the past claimed to possess a nuclear "deterrent" and to have the capability to produce additional weapons, and said those statements "have to be taken seriously."
The New York Times said the information provided by Pakistan has "set off alarms" in Asian countries, including China, which had expressed doubts about U.S. assertions that North Korea has an enriched-uranium bomb project in addition to its plutonium-based weapons program.
The issue is expected to loom large in Vice President Dick Cheney's current visit to China, and give added urgency to the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korean nuclear weapons efforts.
At a San Francisco meeting late last week, senior U.S., South Korean and Japanese diplomats urged the convening, before the end of the month, of "working group" sessions on the issue, and they said the next plenary meeting of the Chinese-hosted talks should be held on schedule before the end of June.