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N. Korea denies sharing nuke secrets with Iran

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• NEW: N. Korean official calls report "lies" and "bid to mislead public opinion"
UK's Daily Telegraph reported N. Korea is helping Iran prepare for a nuke test
Story was picked up by other Western newspapers and TV channels
IAEA head wants Iran to freeze nuclear program and talks to resume
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PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- North Korea on Saturday expressed outrage at a British newspaper's report that Pyongyang was sharing its nuclear weapons technology with Iran, dismissing it as a "bid to mislead public opinion."

"Their assertion is nothing but a sheer lie and fabrication intended to tarnish the image of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] by charging it with nuclear proliferation," a spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry, quoted by the state-run KCNA news agency, said Saturday.

The rebuttal came after a story published Tuesday by London-based The Daily Telegraph that said North Korea is helping Iran prepare for an underground nuclear test similar to Pyongyang's clandestine test last October.

The Daily Telegraph, citing an unnamed senior European defense official, said under a new agreement, Pyongyang will share data and information from the October 9 nuclear test with Tehran's nuclear scientists.

It reported, citing "Western intelligence agencies," an increase of travel by Iranian and North Korean scientists to and from Tehran and Pyongyang. The story was picked up by other Western newspapers and TV news channels.

In response to the story, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a news briefing earlier this week that in the past, North Korea has cooperated on missile programs with Iran.

"Whether that cooperation has extended into other areas, I don't have any information for you," McCormack said.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman said that North Korea "will continue to sincerely honor its duty it had assumed before the international community in the field of nuclear nonproliferation as a responsible nuclear weapons state."

Shortly after Pyongyang's clandestine underground nuclear test last October, U.S. President Bush said "the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States. We would hold North Korea fully accountable."

Fears of Iran becoming nuclear threat

The possibility that Iran may become a nuclear weapons state like North Korea has the international community on edge, especially since Tehran recently banned 38 International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from entering Iran.

Iran's president has repeatedly said Iran has a right to conduct uranium enrichment, which the United Nations has demanded it stop. Tehran recently ignored an August 31 U.N. Security Council deadline to halt its nuclear program and Western countries fear Iran's goal is to secretly build nuclear weapons.

On Friday, IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei said he was hoping that talks on Iran's nuclear issue could resume and called for Iran to freeze its nuclear program. He is also calling for the United Nations to temporarily suspend the sanctions package against Iran that took effect last month. (Full story)

An IAEA official said ElBaradei has not heard back from Iran on the timeout proposal but that he must report back to the United Nations by February 21.

How soon could Iran have a bomb?

Former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has said the intelligence community estimates Iran could have a nuclear weapon sometime between 2010 and 2015.

According to a report last fall by Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency, Iran had been conducting a small-scale research enrichment program using 164 centrifuges at its Natanz facility. ISNA said the country's centrifuges are projected to number 3,000 by March.

Former U.N. nuclear inspector David Albright said that 3,000 centrifuges would produce enough enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb. But Albright predicted it would take Iran a year to install the centrifuges, then another year to produce the uranium to a grade capable of making a nuclear weapon.

However, depending on technical problems, it could be even longer.

U.S. intelligence officials and international weapons experts have said Iran is having trouble with its centrifuges and do not believe the country has mastered the technology. The current 164 centrifuges have been operated at reduced levels as they have broken down, officials have said. Iranian officials had previously said the 3,000-centrifuge cascade would be installed by the end of 2006.

An Iranian official at the United Nations told CNN that he was not sure of the number of centrifuges that would be housed, but that the degree of enrichment would only be high enough for civilian energy purposes. Tehran has maintained its nuclear program is aimed only at energy, while the United States and other Western countries are concerned it is trying to build nuclear weapons.


North Koreans celebrate a successful nuclear test last year.




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