WASHINGTON - North Korea said yesterday that it had removed the equipment that international inspectors installed more than eight years ago to make sure that it would not make use of its large stockpile of plutonium to produce nuclear weapons.
Bush administration officials said they feared that North Korea could use that plutonium to manufacture five or six nuclear weapons within months.
The action, coming one day after North Korea took similar monitoring equipment off a nuclear reactor, intensifies the crisis over North Korea's nuclear capability at a moment when President Bush has tried to focus the world's attention on the threat posed by Iraq. It also poses a challenge to the newly elected government in South Korea.
Several outside experts - and a few Bush administration officials speaking on background last night - said North Korea might now be able to create a small nuclear arsenal in the coming year, assuming it has the technical ability to engineer a working nuclear weapon.
The removal of surveillance cameras and seals from a pond where spent nuclear fuel rods are stored puts Bush in the same position where President Bill Clinton was in 1994, when North Korea threatened to turn its plutonium into additional weapons. By that time, the CIA believed that North Korea had separated enough plutonium to produce two nuclear weapons.
Clinton responded to the threat by reinforcing American troops on the Korean Peninsula and considered a plan to bomb the nuclear site at Yongbyon, before the situation was defused in a negotiated settlement. That settlement is now shattered, and some administration officials are clearly worried that Bush may face a crisis in North Korea at the very moment he is sending tens of thousands of troops half a world away, to the Middle East.
"We still think Saddam is the bigger threat," one senior official said last night, "but there is no question that the North Koreans, who already have superior firepower, may soon be in a position to threaten to deploy or sell its nuclear capability."
North Korea's action was immediately condemned by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which acknowledged that without the surveillance equipment it could not guarantee that the plutonium "has not been diverted to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devises."
The Bush administration's public reaction was far more muted, consistent with its effort in recent weeks to play down the North Korean threat and to say nothing that might provoke a military crisis in the region. Still, several senior officials seemed stunned that North Korea had moved so quickly to escalate its confrontation with the West.
"The 8,000-odd spent fuel rods are of particular concern because they could be reprocessed to recover plutonium for nuclear weapons," Louis Fintor, a State Department spokesman, said yesterday, referring to the fuel rods that the CIA estimates contain a total of about 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds, of plutonium. "They have no relevance for the generation of electricity."
Fintor was referring to North Korea's claims last week that it would have to restart its nuclear reactor to make up for energy lost because oil shipments from the West had been suspended. Under pressure from Washington, Japan, South Korea and the European Union decided last month to hold up those shipments because North Korea had admitted to violating the nuclear freeze agreement it signed in 1994.
North Korea's defiant acknowledgment of its program came in October, when U.S. officials visiting Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, confronted their hosts with evidence that the country was trying to enrich uranium. North Korea has so far refused to allow inspectors to see that program in operation, demanding that that United Sates first negotiate a new accord with the country.
So far, Bush has refused. But yesterday's action creates enormous new pressure on the administration to negotiate with North Korea or risk a military confrontation. In 1994, Clinton considered a military strike on the nuclear complex at Yongbyon if it appeared that North Korea was trying to reprocess its spent fuel rods into bomb-grade plutonium.
"There was every indication at that time that President Clinton would have used force rather than allow the North Koreans to separate more plutonium to produce nuclear weapons," Robert L. Gallucci, Clinton's chief negotiator with North Korea, said yesterday.
"I wouldn't advocate the use of military force now," said Gallucci, who is dean of the school of foreign service at Georgetown University. "But the administration has put itself in a very difficult spot, because its philosophical position against negotiations ... denies them the option of dealing with this issue through negotiations."
Speaking yesterday on Fox News Sunday, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and the departing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that "this is a greater danger immediately to U.S. interests at this very moment, in my view, than Saddam Hussein is."
He added: "If they lift the seals on these canisters, they're going to be able to build four to five additional nuclear weapons within months if they begin that reprocessing operation."