North Korea Prompts U.S. to Investigate Nuclear Boast
01.05.2003 [15:01]

White House officials have ordered the nation's intelligence agencies to conduct a review of whether North Korea could produce bomb-grade plutonium — as it says it has done — without detection by the United States, according to senior administration officials.

The order to the Central Intelligence Agency and other agencies that have long monitored North Korea's nuclear program was prompted by the blunt and direct nature of the North's declaration last week, during negotiations in Beijing, that it was already a nuclear power. It said it had completed reprocessing of 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that could provide enough plutonium for four to six additional weapons.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell described the North Korean assertion in testimony today to a Senate subcommittee, saying, "The North Koreans, in very typical bellicose fashion, accused us of everything imaginable and then said, `We reprocessed all the fuel rods that were in storage.' "

So far the United States has not been able to verify North Korea's claim to have produced weapons-grade plutonium.

"We can't establish that as a matter of fact with our intelligence community, but they said they did it," Mr. Powell said.

Until last week, North Korea had never boasted about its nuclear weapons capability, insisting it was only interested in producing electric power from nuclear reactors. The change in tactics, the administration's Korea experts believe, may be an effort to raise the price of dismantling its program, if President Bush reversed himself and was willing to strike a deal to disarm the country.

"We think they are bluffing," a senior administration official said. "But we felt the necessity to go back and review every possibility, in the off chance that we missed something."

The C.I.A. has long believed that North Korea may have two nuclear weapons developed in the late 1980's or early 1990's, before a 1994 nuclear freeze accord was signed with President Bill Clinton. But the agency is worried about reprocessing, because North Korea could sell plutonium on the open market — a threat Mr. Powell said today that the North Koreans made explicit last week, saying their decision "depends on the American reaction."

The chemical process of reprocessing spent fuel into plutonium lets off a distinct signature — a form of krypton — that can be detected by sensors used by American intelligence agencies for decades, back to the days of the cold war. So far there has been no evidence of that gas, officials say, or other evidence that reprocessing has begun.

But some senior administration officials have long been concerned that the intelligence agencies have missed either a hidden reprocessing plant or one that operates at such a low level that it would not emit a detectable signature.

"I've never been satisfied that we knew everything we should about the nature of their program," one senior administration official said.

Others noted that the White House and the intelligence agencies jointly concluded that all past suspicions of North Korean nuclear activity — including unconfirmed reports that the North imported plutonium from Russia or a former Soviet republic in the 1990's — should now be revisited.

Five years ago the C.I.A. thought it had identified a huge underground plant that could be used for reprocessing. When American officials finally gained access, however, the cave turned out to be empty.

For several years the C.I.A. also suspected, but could not prove, that North Korea had a clandestine program to build a bomb using another process, involving highly enriched uranium. That process does not give off a distinctive signature. The evidence did not come until a year ago, however, and when the North was confronted with it in October, the current crisis began. North Korean officials did not refer to that program directly in the Beijing talks.

The findings of the new intelligence review could affect a behind-the-scenes debate now underway within the administration over whether to continue talking to the North Korean government, or to move sometime in the next few weeks or months toward a kind of economic embargo not seen since the Cuban missile crisis.

North Korea has warned that economic penalties would be regarded as an act of war, and so far South Korea and China have argued that they would be a mistake, at a moment when North Korea appears willing to at least discuss giving up its nuclear ambitions.

But inside the administration, a growing number of senior officials believe that the North Koreans miscalculated when they declared in Beijing last week that they are already a nuclear power. The declaration, they argue, pushed China more toward the American position that the North Korean government of Kim Jong Il must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.

"We're in no hurry" to decide on sanctions, said one senior administration official, noting that South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, and Japan's prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, will both be in Washington in coming weeks.

In comments in Seoul today, Mr. Roh was openly skeptical of the North Korean claims, telling his staff that North Korea's admission that it possesses nuclear weapons amounted to "game tactics in North Korea-U.S. negotiations."

The Roh administration, which took office in February, has tried to establish its bona fides with Washington after a difficult start to the relationship, as it was sometimes viewed as cool toward the United States.

DAVID E. SANGER/The Washington Post

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