Analysts fear CIA underestimated North Korean threat

Taipei Times

Saturday, Sep 20, 2003,Page 1

Some American intelligence analysts are becoming increasingly concerned that North Korea may have three, four or even six nuclear weapons instead of the one or two the CIA now estimates.

Every new weapon would enhance North Korea's nuclear capability and give the country significantly more authority at the negotiating table, experts say.

One or two nuclear weapons would be considered last-resort devices, because once used they could no longer deter a US nuclear response. But a half-dozen would give North Korea the ability to strike and then be ready to strike again.

In addition, if North Korea had weapons to spare, its leaders might be more willing to part with one, either in a test or by selling it. The leaders also could more easily afford to put one weapon on display at a missile launch site for US spy satellites to see -- to up the ante in negotiations.

"We're trying to nail that down," Senator Evan Bayh, said of analytical efforts to study North Korea's weapons program.

"The consequences of them having more nuclear warheads is significant, in terms of them conducting a test, or possibly trafficking in nuclear materials," said Bayh, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Among the issues being debated by American intelligence analysts is whether the North Koreans have refined their nuclear weapons designs so they are able to use less plutonium to make a working weapon.

Some analysts presume the North Koreans have made steady advances in their weapons' designs, and thus are able to use their existing stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium more efficiently, according to several US government officials. They all discussed intelligence information on the condition of anonymity.

However, the CIA, as an agency, has not reached that conclusion. It is sticking with its unclassified estimate of one or two weapons, the officials said. Other US estimates put the number at three or four; still others are floating five or six weapons as a possibility.