North Korea doesn't need testing to validate nuclear arms, CIA says

Technology is advanced enough to forgo trials

November 09, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The CIA has told Congress that it thinks North Korea has mastered the technology of turning its nuclear fuel into functioning weapons, without having to prove their effectiveness through nuclear tests.

The CIA report goes beyond previous public CIA statements that North Korea built one or two weapons in the early 1990s - a figure that many intelligence experts think has risen in the past few months.

Those statements carried the presumption that North Korea had developed the technology to detonate weapons, but in background briefings, some American and Asian intelligence officials expressed doubts. They said that in the absence of a North Korean nuclear test there was no way to be certain of its abilities.

Now those doubts appear to be gone.

The CIA's notification to Congress, sent in mid-August, reports that although North Korea could conduct a nuclear test at any time, it is probably seeking to avoid "precipitating an international backlash and further isolation."

For the first time, the agency has publicly stated that the North's technology is advanced enough that a highly visible test - like those in China in the mid-1960s and in India and Pakistan in the 1990s - is unnecessary.

The agency's new assessment came in a series of written, unclassified responses to questions posed by members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

The conclusion, if accurate, would give credence to recent statements by North Korean officials that they possess a working "nuclear deterrent," and to their assertion that it was too late for the Bush administration to stop their nation from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.

The CIA's judgment complicates the diplomatic task facing President Bush as the United States moves toward another round of six-nation talks with the North, which will probably occur next month. Bush, who declared this year that he would never "tolerate" a nuclear North Korea, has said that the United States is prepared to offer, with other nations, some form of security guarantees to the North in return for its agreement to disarm.

But even if the North agrees, defining "disarmament" may be extremely difficult. U.S. intelligence officials admit that they do not know exactly how much weapons-grade fuel North Korea has produced this year because international inspectors were expelled on New Year's Eve.

One senior official said yesterday that the significance of the CIA's conclusion is that "we may never know for sure how many weapons they manufactured and then hid away in some tunnel." Even if North Korea agrees to give up both its production facilities and the weapons it has produced - a step many Korea experts in the administration believe is unlikely - "how would we ever know that we've gotten all of it?" the official said.

The statement in the CIA was in reply to questions posed by senators in the spring. The answers were submitted Aug. 18, but not made public until recently. They are written in the arcane language of nuclear intelligence.

"We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests," the report said. The agency appeared to be referring to the kind of basic bomb containing plutonium extracted from North Korea's nuclear power reactors, not to warheads made from highly enriched uranium.

The agency pointed to news reports that the North had conducted "high-explosive tests since the 1980s in order to validate its nuclear weapons design(s)."

Those tests, it suggested, made it unnecessary to stage a full nuclear explosion to be confident that the designs would work.

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