N. Korea believed to be taking nuclear fuel out of storage

U.S. spy satellites show truck activity at stockpile, possibly to build bombs


WASHINGTON - U.S. spy satellites over North Korea have detected what appear to be trucks moving the country's stockpile of 8,000 nuclear fuel rods out of storage, prompting fears within the administration that the country is preparing to produce roughly a half-dozen nuclear weapons, U.S. officials said yesterday.

Throughout January, intelligence analysts have seen extensive activity at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, with some trucks pulling up to the building housing the storage pond.

While the satellites could not see exactly what was being put into the trucks, analysts concluded that workers likely were transporting the rods, either to get them out of the sight of U.S. intelligence officials or to a nuclear reprocessing facility several miles away, where they could be converted into bomb-grade plutonium.

The White House has said nothing publicly about the truck activity, deflecting questions about the subject.

U.S. intelligence analysts have informally concluded that the movement of the rods, combined with other activity that under way at the Yongbyon facility, could allow North Korea to begin producing bomb-grade plutonium by the end of March.

"There's still a debate about exactly what we are seeing and how provocative it is," said one senior official. "The North Koreans made no real effort to hide this from us."

The satellite photographs of the truck activity have been tightly held by the administration and not yet shared widely with allies. The administration's lack of public expressions of alarm contrasts sharply with its approach to Iraq, which the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, noted yesterday is years behind North Korea in nuclear capability.

Some administration officials have said they want to avoid creating a crisis atmosphere with North Korea - they believe President Kim Jong Il is hoping to spark a crisis to extract concessions from Washington - while others say Bush does not want to distract international attention from confronting Iraq.

The spent fuel rods have been in secure storage under a 1994 nuclear freeze agreement struck with United States. But after American officials confronted Kim's government in October with evidence that it was violating the agreement by pursuing a new, clandestine nuclear program, North Korea renounced that agreement.

It threw out international inspectors on New Year's Eve.

There is growing consensus in the administration that North Korea is working to produce bombs as quickly as it can, perhaps hoping this will give it more negotiating leverage once Iraq is out of the spotlight.

The satellite evidence might present the Bush administration with an excruciating military choice.

Pentagon officials say the North Korean program could be set back for years with a precision strike on the reprocessing plant, which is also part of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, is above ground and away from population centers.

But such a strike would be enormously risky: U.S. officials and their allies fear that North Korea would retaliate against Seoul or Tokyo, resulting in tremendous casualties.

President Bush has repeatedly pledged in recent weeks that "we have no intention of invading North Korea." But the word "invading" appears, to some Korea experts, to have been carefully chosen, so that Bush was not taking off the table the threat of a precision strike on the reprocessing plant.

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