N. Korean nuclear efforts looking less threatening

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    http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2003-11-04-korea-usat_x.htm

    N. Korean nuclear efforts looking less threatening
    By Barbara Slavin and John Diamond, USA TODAY

    WASHINGTON — A year after North Korea provoked a crisis with the United States by admitting a secret effort to make weapons-grade uranium, U.S. officials say the program appears to be far less advanced than diplomats had feared.

    Intensive international monitoring and North Korean ineptitude have significantly slowed efforts to build a plant to produce highly enriched uranium, says a State Department official involved in U.S. attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

    A U.S. intelligence official says the CIA, which has conducted extensive surveillance of North Korea, is "not certain there even is" a uranium-enrichment plant. He says North Korea may have overstated its capability as part of a strategy of "bluff and bluster to extract concessions from the United States."

    If it turns out that North Korea's uranium production is not advanced, it could be much easier to work out a new deal to end the North's bombmaking efforts. Though North Korea is believed to have enough fuel for two to eight nuclear weapons, those weapons would use plutonium derived from a long-acknowledged nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The reason it's still unclear whether there is a uranium program is that such efforts are difficult to monitor. Plutonium programs, however, emit krypton gas that can be measured from the atmosphere.

    "I would find this report encouraging" because it would indicate the North's nuclear threat is less grave than portrayed, says Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    Experts say it is possible some U.S. officials exaggerated the extent of the uranium program to torpedo a 1994 U.S. agreement with North Korea that traded energy aid for a freeze on nuclear development. Bush administration hard-liners had been trying to end the agreement in hopes of overturning the isolated, totalitarian regime. Following North Korea's admission that it was trying to develop a uranium-enrichment capability, the administration stopped shipping fuel oil to North Korea. The regime responded by kicking out United Nations inspectors from the Yongbyon complex, where work had been frozen under the agreement.

    North Korea reactivated the complex after the inspectors left.

    But that effort, too, appears less advanced than some had feared. "Whatever they are doing appears constrained," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank focused on nuclear issues. He says North Korea has not even tried to finish a reactor near Yongbyon that could produce 10 bombs' worth of plutonium a year.

    Hopes for a new agreement rose last week after North Korea tentatively agreed to attend new talks in China on the nuclear issue. The United States and North Korea's neighbors are pressuring the regime to end its weapons program.

    U.S. officials caution that it is impossible to know for sure what the North Koreans have been up to since they withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty this year. The regime is notoriously opaque, and it's hard to detect uranium enrichment without having spies inside the country.

    But some efforts to stymie the program have been successful. Last April, Germany blocked North Korea's purchase of 200 tons of aluminum tubing suitable for vacuum casings for centrifuges. Twenty-two tons made it on board a French ship in Hamburg but was seized in the Suez Canal.

    "Our attempts to heighten awareness have had an impact," the State Department official says.

    Kenneth Quinones, a former Korea intelligence analyst at the State Department, says North Korea has obtained components but has not built a plant housing the thousands of centrifuges required to enrich large amounts of uranium. "They have pieces of the puzzle," he says.

    Others say North Korea could have obtained only a "starter kit" for uranium enrichment from Pakistan, but not technical expertise.
     

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