US warned to heed nuclear posturing in Pyongyang

By Andrew Ward

Financial Times

Published: January 26 2004 4:00 | Last Updated: January 26 2004 4:00

Considering the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, public opinion could be forgiven for ignoring last week's claim by a former US official that North Korea might already possess eight nuclear bombs.

However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the warning by Jack Pritchard, former US envoy to North Korea, as another case of US exaggeration. In fact, Mr Pritchard accused President George W. Bush's administration of underestimating the threat posed by Kim Jong-il's regime.

Mr Pritchard, who resigned last year in frustration at what he calls "amateurish" US policy towards North Korea, was among an unofficial US group that visited the Communist state's main nuclear plant at Yongbyon earlier this month.

They were shown an empty tank, from which 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods had been removed since the expulsion of United Nations inspectors in December 2002. The finding supported North Korea's claims that it had completed reprocessing the rods - a step that would give it enough plutonium for about six bombs, in addition to the one or two the US already suspected it possessed.

Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist who accompanied Mr Pritchard to Yongbyon, cautioned the US Senate foreign relations committee that the group was not shown proof that the rods had been reprocessed. They may simply have been moved to another location. But the fact that US intelligence has lost track of enough nuclear material for half a dozen warheads is cause enough for alarm.

Before the visit of Mr Pritchard's group to Yongbyon, the consensus among international intelligence services was that North Korea had reprocessed some but not all its fuel rods because only small amounts of Krypton gas - a byproduct of reprocessing - had been detected over the past year.

However, the unofficial visit to Yongbyon exposed how little is known about North Korea's nuclear capability. The possibilities range from the country not possessing any nuclear weapons to it having eight.

In addition to the plutonium programme, the US believes North Korea also has a fledgling uranium-based nuclear programme. Washington says North Korea admitted to the latter programme during bilateral talks in 2002 but Pyongyang now denies its existence.

Diplomats say the US has intelligence that North Korea imported uranium enrichment technology from Pakistan. But Washington does not know where the uranium facilities are or how advanced the programme is.

North Korea's refusal to acknowledge its second nuclear programme is a serious obstacle to a settlement with the US because Washington would demand that both the plutonium and uranium facilities were verifiably dismantled as part of any deal. Pyongyang may be calculating that a sceptical world will not believe Washington following the intelligence failures in Iraq.

North Korea's tactics - inviting Mr Pritchard's group to Yongbyon but keeping the full extent of its nuclear capability obscure - appear designed to spread confusion. Some analysts fear Pyongyang is trying to convince the world of its nuclear capability without taking any dramatic action - such as a nuclear test - that would risk an aggressive response by the US. Once established as a de facto nuclear power, North Korea would seek to negotiate an improved relationship with the outside world.

Writing in the New York Times, Mr Pritchard warned that other Asian countries might accept a nuclear North Korea in preference to the war or state collapse that could result from confronting Pyongyang. Such an outcome would shatter US attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons among rogue states. Washington is worried about the possibility of North Korea transferring nuclear technology to other states or terrorist groups.

Mr Bush has committed himself to a peaceful resolution of the crisis through multilateral diplomacy. But the six-party process set up to seek a settlement has been deadlocked since the first meeting of the US, Japan, China, Russia and the two Koreas last August.

A second meeting is expected but the prospects of agreement remain uncertain. North Korea has demanded economic assistance and security guarantees in return for dismantling its nuclear programme but the US is reluctant to reward bad behaviour and many analysts doubt Pyongyang's willingness to abandon its nuclear capability.

Mr Pritchard suggested Washington might be using six-way talks as cover for its true intention of regime change through economic isolation. But he quoted Kim Gye-gwan, North Korea's vice-foreign minister, as saying: "Time is not on the American side."