North Korea may try to test nuclear weapon, officials say

White House is warned

some experts disagree that attempt is imminent


WASHINGTON - President Bush and his top advisers have received intelligence reports in recent days describing a confusing series of actions by North Korea that some experts believe could indicate the country is preparing to conduct its first test explosion of a nuclear weapon, according to senior officials with access to the intelligence.

Although the indications were viewed as serious enough to warrant a warning to the White House, U.S. intelligence agencies appear divided about the significance of the North Korean actions, much as they were about the evidence concerning Iraq's alleged unconventional weapons stockpiles. Some analysts in agencies that were the most cautious about the Iraq findings have said they do not believe the activity detected in North Korea in the past three weeks is necessarily the harbinger of a nuclear bomb test. A senior scientist who assesses nuclear intelligence says the new evidence "is not conclusive" but is potentially worrisome.

If successful, a test would end a debate that stretches back more than a decade over whether North Korea has a rudimentary arsenal, as it has boasted in recent years. Some analysts also fear that a test could change the balance of power in Asia, perhaps leading to a new nuclear arms race there.

In interviews Friday and yesterday, senior officials were reluctant to provide details of the new activities they have detected, but some of the information appears to come from satellite intelligence. One official with access to the intelligence called it "a series of indicators of increased activity that we believe would be associated with a test," saying that the "likelihood" of a North Korean test had risen significantly in just the past four weeks. It was that changed assessment that led to the decision to give an update to Bush, the officials said.

The activities included the movement of materials around several suspected test sites, including one near where intelligence agencies reported last year that conventional explosives were being tested that could compress a plutonium core and set off a nuclear explosion. But officials have not seen the classic indicators of preparations at a test site, in which cables are laid to measure an explosion in a deep test pit.

"I'm not sure you would see that in a country that has tunnels everywhere," said one senior official who has reviewed the data. Officials said that if North Korea proceeds with a test, it would probably be with a plutonium bomb, perhaps one fabricated from the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that the North has boasted in the past few months have been reprocessed into bomb fuel.

A senior intelligence official said yesterday that even if "they are doing something, it doesn't mean they will" conduct a test, saying that preparations that the North knew could be detected by the United States might be a scare tactic or negotiating tactic by the North Korean government.

Several officials speculated that the test, if it occurred, could be intended to influence the presidential election, though a senior military official said that while "an election surprise" could be the motive, "I'm not sure what that would buy them."

Some of the senior officials who discussed the emerging indicators were clearly trying to warn North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, that his actions were being closely watched. Asian officials said that there has been speculation in South Korea and Japan for some time that Kim might try to stage an incident - perhaps a missile test or the withdrawal of more raw nuclear fuel from a reactor - in an effort to display defiance before the election.

The intelligence information was discussed in interviews with officials from five agencies of the government, ranging from those who believe a test may occur at any moment to those who are highly skeptical. Some had reviewed the raw data, and others had seen a classified intelligence report about the possibility of a test that has circulated in Washington in the past week. Most were career officials.

If North Korea successfully tested a nuclear weapon, it would represent the failure of 14 years of efforts to stop the North's nuclear program.

Officials throughout Asia and members of Bush's national security team have also feared it could fuel political pressure in South Korea and Japan to develop a nuclear deterrent independent of the United States.

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