The United States is concerned that centrifuges sold to North Korea by Pakistan in the 1990s may have been passed on to Syria or another country, current and former U.S. officials said yesterday.
Pakistan has acknowledged that renegade scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan sold North Korea the centrifuges, which the United States suspects were intended for use to enrich uranium for a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.
But Pyongyang, which has never admitted to having a uranium-based program, has told U.S. officials that it does not possess the centrifuges, raising doubts whether North Korea will be truthful when it declares its nuclear programs, probably in the next few days.
Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator with the North, suggested yesterday that the centrifuges may have been transferred elsewhere. Speaking in Seoul about the uranium program, he referred to “past programs” and the “disposition of equipment.”
“We need a complete understanding of [highly enriched uranium], of their program — or if it is not an active program, we need a complete understanding of its past programs,” Mr. Hill said. “We need an acknowledgement of what went on, an explanation of how it went on, and the disposition of equipment.”
Officials in Washington said that in examining where the centrifuges might have gone, they are considering exports to a third country, particularly Syria.
The administration has been silent about a suspected nuclear-related facility in Syria that was bombed by Israel in September. It has rebuffed numerous questions about it, both from Congress and the press.
There are differing opinions within the Bush administration over how to interpret intelligence received in 2002 involving the purchases from Pakistan.
Mr. Hill and some others think that the North Koreans were pursuing a uranium-enrichment program when they were confronted by the United States but that it never got off the ground. Other officials suspect the program was up and running.
North Korea has acknowledged acquiring some materials such as aluminum tubes that could have been used in a uranium-enrichment program but says they were wanted for other purposes.
Mr. Hill, who travels to Pyongyang on Monday, is expected to tell the North Koreans that their declaration will not be credible if it does not account for the centrifuges.
Any attempt to cheat on the declaration would stall the hard-won six-nation deal providing energy and other aid to North Korea in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear programs.
“If we have a problem, there may be a tendency for people to pull back,” Mr. Hill said yesterday. “It behooves us to have the courage to move forward.”
China is expected to reconvene the six-party talks next week, and Mr. Hill said the North Koreans are already sharing a draft text of their declaration with the Chinese.
“We are continuing to discuss the matter of uranium enrichment, and based on the progress in those discussions, I believe that by the end of the year, we can come to a mutual satisfaction,” Mr. Hill said.
He said he would discuss the declaration in Pyongyang, “and I hope that in the course of that discussion, we will know what’s coming in a draft.”
Mr. Hill will also visit the North’s main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, whose main facilities are being disabled as part of the Oct. 3 agreement.