North Korea’s sudden advancement in developing nuclear weapons may be due to secret support from Iran, British officials fear.
The Foreign Office is investigating whether “current and former nuclear states” helped Kim Jong-Un in his drive to mount nuclear warheads on missiles.
Senior Whitehall sources told The Sunday Telegraph it is not credible that North Korean scientists alone brought about the technological advances.
Iran is top of the list of countries suspected of giving some form of assistance, while Russia is also in the spotlight.
The fear is that outside influences have provided North Korea with equipment or expertise that has moved them closer to becoming a nuclear nation.
“North Korean scientists are people of some ability, but clearly they’re not doing it entirely in a vacuum,” said one Government minister.
Another Foreign Office source said: “For them to have done this entirely on their own stretches the bounds of credulity.”
The hope is that identifying any link could open new diplomatic avenues for exerting pressure on the regime, which has refused to change course despite economic sanctions.
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, hinted at his department’s concerns last week as he took questions from MPs about the crisis.
“There is currently an investigation into exactly how the country has managed to make this leap in technological ability,” Mr Johnson said.
“We are looking at the possible role that may have been played, inadvertently or otherwise, by some current and former nuclear states.” He declined to name who he had in mind.
America will tomorrow seek approval from the United Nations Security Council for a ban on exporting oil to North Korea, according to a leaked draft resolution.
The US also wants a ban on textile exports from the country as well as an asset freeze and travel ban on Mr Kim, the country’s young leader.
However it is unclear if China – which supplies roughly 500,000 tonnes of crude oil to North Korea annually – or Russia will support the move. A veto from either would kill off the resolution.
British officials have been taken aback by the speed of advancement in North Korea’s nuclear programme.
Last month the regime sent a missile over Japan, while this week an explosion at a testing site measured 6.3 on the Richter scale—10 times more powerful than the tremor from the last such test.
At the start of the year it was estimated that North Korea would need a decade before they could launch intercontinental ballistic missile with nuclear warheads, Government sources said. That has now been slashed to just a few years.
Britain’s most senior Cabinet ministers were briefed on the “fast forward” in the country’s nuclear capabilities at a National Security Council meeting last week, attended by senior intelligence figures.
Theresa May also talked to Donald Trump, the American President, about North Korea just days after he said “all options” remained on the table.
The pair agreed to use “all the leverage they had” to stop Mr Kim from developing nuclear weapons and “agreed on the key role China has to play”, according to an official briefing.
Government sources said there are “hawkish” elements in the US administration who believe there is an argument for military intervention.
They argue that the “window of opportunity” for action is narrowing and may be closed if left until the end of Mr Trump’s presidency.
However the US-UK focus remains on finding a diplomatic solution, with agreement among the UN Security Council being the key target.
Suspicions remain about how North Korea is managing to make such rapid advances in its nuclear programme.
Despite the crisis showing few signs of ending, there is hope in some quarters of the Foreign Office that the drive for nuclear weapons is for a domestic audience.
A senior Whitehall source said: “Kim is trying to emerge from the shadow of his father and grandfather. He sees developing this independent nuclear deterrent, being a nuclear nation, as being his big legacy.
“One of the misnomers is that Kim is a madmen. He’s not a madman at all, he’s a rational operator. The rationale is: We’ll become a nuclear nation. … and gain respect.”