Trying to make a bomb out of drugs

The contraband was seized by the Russian security service along the short strip of land where Russia meets North Korea near Vladivostok. It weighed 8kg - two more than the sphere of plutonium-239 used by the United States to flatten Nagasaki in 1945. The consignment was, Tass news agency reported yesterday, of the highest quality and worth more than dollars 1m ( pounds 660,000). It was not plutonium, but a component Western intelligence agencies consider almost as important to Kim Il Sung's ambitions: heroin.

Drugs could well be the other side North Korea's baffling nuclear equation. They help provide the money needed to pay what, even for prosperous nations, are the crippling costs of developing atomic weapons.

It has long been feared that North Korea may buy Russia's atomic expertise. Only this week the counter-intelligence service announced in Moscow that five North Koreans had been deported several months earlier for 'showing too much interest in nuclear components'. Sergei Stepashin, the counter-intelligence chief, said yesterday during a visit to Vladivostok that North Korean special services had stepped up their activity in the Far East and were aiming to obtain secrets from Russia's Pacific Fleet.

With few sources of hard currency other than remittances from Koreans in Japan and the earnings of murky companies in Macau, Pyongyang is in desperate need of hard currency.

North Korean diplomats have long been accused in the West of exploiting diplomatic privilege to smuggle drugs to earn cash for their government. None of those involved in the case announced yesterday in Moscow appear to have had diplomatic status. But they almost certainly had close contacts with the government. Russian authorities say they arrested two North Korean nationals on 9 June in connection with the heroin. They were named by Tass as Kim In Chol and Choe Cheng Soo. Several Russian employees of a Russian-Korean joint venture called Monolit were also detained. All North Koreans sent to work in such ventures abroad are vetted for loyalty.

Russian scientists, who helped Pyongyang launch a small nuclear research programme, insist that Kim Il Sung has yet to make a bomb. Lev Ryabev, First Deputy Minister for nuclear engineering, believes there has been at worst 'insignificant research developments in this field'. But, he insists: 'North Korea does not have a nuclear bomb.' Even before Russia switched its attentions from Pyongyang to Seoul, Moscow tried to restrain North Korea's nuclear ambitions, demanding that it join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But if Pyongyang has failed to acquire a bomb with Russia's help, whether purloined or purchased, it is not for want of trying. In December 1992, some three dozen Russian weapons scientists were held as their plane was about to take off from Moscow for North Korea. They are said to have included researchers from Arzamas-16, the centre of Russia's own drive to build a nuclear bomb in the 1940s, and had been hired to work for hard currency.