WASHINGTON — A senior Bush Administration official told Congress on Thursday that North Korea may be only months away from finishing a plant that can reprocess nuclear fuel, a step that would enable it to build a nuclear bomb by mid-1993.
A North Korean nuclear reprocessing plant "may be nearing operational status," Undersecretary of State Arnold Kanter told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Asia.
On Jan. 22, Kanter met with a North Korean diplomat at the United Nations in the highest-level talks ever between the two countries.
Kanter's testimony amounts to the most explicit public statement yet by any senior U.S. official about the rapid pace of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. A reprocessing plant can be used to convert the plutonium produced by a nuclear reactor into a nuclear explosive.
"It's a very important development," Selig Harrison of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said of Kanter's testimony.
"If nothing happens (to stop the North Korean program) by this summer," Harrison said, "you're going to see pressure tactics, calls for embargoes and so forth on the part of the United States, Japan and South Korea by the fall."
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), chairman of the Asia subcommittee, said Thursday that he believes that "North Korea presents a more severe challenge than has Iraq to the international community's efforts to control weapons of mass destruction."
After delaying for more than five years, North Korea last week signed an agreement that would open the way for International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of its nuclear facilities.
Kanter told Congress on Thursday that U.S. officials hope the agreement will be ratified within the next two weeks, before the Feb. 19 meeting of the prime ministers of north and south.
He said that Pyongyang's willingness to sign the IAEA agreement, and its signing in December of an agreement with Seoul to ban nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula, amount to "hopeful signs of progress." But, he warned, "we have been disappointed before by North Korean behavior."
Another Bush Administration source said Thursday that the United States, Japan and South Korea are now trying to decide what to do if North Korea continues to delay in permitting inspections of its nuclear facilities.
"The question is, if they (the North Koreans) continue to stall, then what?" this U.S. official said. "Everybody's musing about that." He noted that the IAEA's board of governors will meet Feb. 25 and will have to decide what action to take if North Korea has not ratified the nuclear safeguards agreement.
North Korea's main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, reportedly has about 3,000 scientists and a 30-megawatt reactor capable of producing plutonium.
U.S. officials have said that North Korea is building both a second, larger reactor and the reprocessing plant near the first facility at Yongbyon. And private defense specialists have said that North Korea has been developing a Scud missile that would have a range of about 250 miles, enough to hit most targets in South Korea.