N. Korea weeks from restarting plutonium plant

Spy satellite reveals high activity at nuclear facility, U.S. experts say

March 01, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's experts on North Korea and intelligence officials have told President Bush that they expect that in the next few weeks the North will turn on the reprocessing facility that can produce weapons-grade plutonium.

The officials say they believe that North Korea might time the bomb-making to coincide with the start of any military action against Iraq, a moment when North Korea may think that the United States is distracted.

Spy satellites, which show a steady stream of activity around the reprocessing plant, detected a test last month of the power system that would have to be activated before the country's stockpile of 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods could be turned into plutonium, according to several officials with access to the intelligence.

A senior official described the activity as "checking off the list, one by one."

"Once they start reprocessing, it's a bomb a month from now until summer," he concluded. After impoverished North Korea has enough plutonium to create what it considers a credible nuclear threat, Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage warned Congress last month, it could sell plutonium to "a non-state actor or a rogue state."

So, at a time when American troops are preparing for possible war with Iraq, Bush's top intelligence officials have begun to depart from the White House effort to play down the North Korea problem in public, describing the situation as a "crisis." In the words of the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, this could be "the most serious challenge to U.S. interests in the Northeast Asia area in a generation."

Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has said that while he was concerned about North Korea's action this week to restart the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which could produce the raw material for a bomb over a year, restarting the reprocessing facility would be "a disaster."

It would, he said, permit the country to "produce several atomic bombs in half a year."

The urgency of the threat has sharpened a behind-the-scenes struggle within the administration over how to deal with Kim Jong Il.

Armitage, who has long experience with North Korea, used his testimony in Congress to suggest negotiations were needed with the North, and his efforts left Bush "off-the-wall angry," according to a senior administration official, whose account was corroborated by several White House officials.

Armitage praised President Bill Clinton's 1994 deal with North Korea for preventing earlier bomb-making by the North, and he endorsed "a bilateral discussion" with the country under "a multilateral umbrella, of any sort."

Armitage's testimony led to a meeting at the White House at which Bush directed Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other officials to ban all public discussion of one-on-one, direct talks with the North. North Korea has so far refused to sit down with any broad group of nations.

The result is that while North Korea is accelerating its nuclear programs, there is virtually no conversation under way. "We're at the point," said one official involved in the internal debate, "where nothing is happening - and no one knows how we will respond when the bomb-making starts."

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