WASHINGTON, April 12 — Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist who sold nuclear technology around the world, has told his interrogators that during a trip to North Korea five years ago he was taken to a secret underground nuclear plant and shown what he described as three nuclear devices, according to Asian and American officials who have been briefed by the Pakistanis.
If Dr. Khan's report is true, it would be the first time that any foreigner has reported inspecting an actual North Korean nuclear weapon. Past C.I.A. assessments of North Korea's nuclear capacity have been based on estimates of how much plutonium it could produce and assessments of its technical capability to turn that plutonium into weapons.
Dr. Khan, known as the father of the Pakistani bomb, said he was allowed to inspect the weapons briefly, according to the account that Pakistan has begun to provide in classified briefings to nations within reach of North Korea's missiles. American intelligence officials caution that they cannot say whether Dr. Khan had the time, expertise or equipment to verify the claims. But they note that the number of plutonium weapons roughly accords with previous C.I.A. estimates that North Korea had one or two weapons and the ability to produce more.
White House officials declined to discuss the intelligence reports, saying through a spokesman that the subject was "too sensitive." But Vice President Dick Cheney was briefed on Dr. Khan's assertions before he left for Asia over the weekend, and he is expected to cite the intelligence to China's leaders on Tuesday to press the point that talks over disarming North Korea are going too slowly, administration officials said. They expect him to argue that the Bush administration is losing patience and may seek stronger action, including sanctions.
Dr. Khan also told Pakistani officials that he began dealing with North Korea on the sale of equipment for a second way of producing nuclear weapons — through the enrichment of uranium, as opposed to plutonium — as early as the late 1980's. But he said he did not begin major shipments to North Korea until the late 1990's, after the country's plutonium program was frozen under an agreement with the United States. North Korea has since renounced that agreement.
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