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US Concerned North Korea May Export Nuclear Materials

The State Department expressed concern Wednesday that North Korea "may be tempted" to export nuclear materials, as it has done in the past with missiles and missile-related technology. The comments follow newspaper accounts that U.S. intelligence officials believe that Pyongyang may have sold processed uranium to Libya.

Officials here are declining comment on the assertion in a New York Times report that U.S. intelligence officials have concluded "with near certainty" that North Korea sold processed uranium to Libya. But they are making clear that the possibility that North Korea has, or will, become a nuclear exporter is a major concern for the Bush administration. They say the issue was an agenda item for two senior officials of the White House National Security Council, who are completing a mission to China, Japan and South Korea.

State Department spokesman Thomas Casey told VOA the United States has long been concerned that as North Korea develops nuclear capabilities, it "might be tempted to export them," as they have done with missiles and related technology. The spokesman said North Korea's nuclear program and its "past and ongoing" proliferation activities constitute a threat to global peace and security, but that the United States remains committed to a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue through Chinese-sponsored six-party negotiations.

The New York Times report, and a similar account by the Washington Post Wednesday, said the material North Korea may have exported to Libya is uranium hexafluoride. It is not fissile material but can be enriched into weapons-grade material if it is refined with centrifuges. Libya late last year handed over a large amount of uranium hexafluoride to the United States when it renounced its weapons of mass destruction programs.

The New York Times quoted officials with access to intelligence information as saying that U.S. experts who examined the cache of uranium from Libya are 90 percent sure it came from North Korea. Officials here said it is long-standing policy not to comment on intelligence matters but they also did not challenge the thrust of the newspaper account. They said North Korea's "known proclivity" for proliferating missile know-how has to arouse concern about its nuclear intentions.

One official said uranium hexafluoride is relatively easy to acquire, and that a greater worry among U.S. officials is that North Korea may have had nuclear dealings with others.

Spokesman Casey said National Security Council officials, its senior director for Asian Affairs Michael Green, and its acting director for non-proliferation William Tobey, discussed a wide range of issues in their talks in Asia, including the U.S. desire to "see progress" in the six-party talks.

In a wire service interview late Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Chinese-sponsored talks are the "best forum possible" for resolving the issue of the North Korean nuclear program. She reiterated U.S. peaceful intentions toward Pyongyang, saying past suggestions that the United States might attack North Korea "couldn't be more far-fetched."

The new secretary of state said Pyongyang should end its "hiatus" and return to the negotiations, which broke off last June. She said the U.S. proposal offered at the last round remains on "the table for the taking," and that the path of self-imposed isolation the North Koreans are currently on will not lead to their integration into the international system.