Iranian nuclear experts made three secret visits to North Korea earlier this year, possibly to consult on ways to fool international inspectors, a Japanese newspaper said yesterday.
The claim came as the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, issued a warning that Iran was making swift progress in attempts to build a nuclear bomb.
Quoting an unnamed “Korean peninsula source” Sankei, a respected national daily, said two Iranian experts visited Pyongyang in March, staying for several days, with further visits in April and May.
The report suggested that the visits “may have been intended to ask North Korea for know-how on how to act when accepting inspectors”.
Iran is developing what it says is a civilian nuclear reactor with Russian help, but America and Britain believe this is a cover to develop a nuclear bomb. The Americans argue that Iran, as a major oil producer, has no need for nuclear power. Iran’s nuclear programme began under the former shah, a US ally, with apparent encouragement from Washington.
Mr Rumsfeld, who is visiting Germany, said: “The assessment is that they are likely to have nuclear weapons in a relatively short period of time.”
Iran is a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and is under pressure to sign an “additional protocol” to allow intrusive inspections of nuclear sites.
This year, the International Atomic Energy Agency visited previously unknown facilities to enrich uranium. Washington said the agency’s report was “deeply troubling”.
North Korea is believed to have clandestinely continued to develop nuclear weapons while undergoing IAEA inspections since 1992.