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E. Asian Strategic Balance Remains

North Korea's disclosure of nuclear program confirms long-held assumptions. The question is what it would gain by the move.

October 19, 2002|Mark Magnier and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

SEOUL -- The military and strategic balance in East Asia hasn't changed much despite reports this week that North Korea admitted having an ongoing nuclear weapons program "and more."

Military planners in East Asia have long assumed that the Communist regime's program was well advanced. North Korea was found nearly a decade ago to have enough plutonium for two bombs, and several defectors have detailed their experiences working at fuel enrichment plants.

"While there may be some temporary impact on the North Asian neighborhood, in the long run we don't see much change and believe a solution will be found," said Lee Jong Seok, an analyst with South Korea's Sejong Institute.

U.S. and Japanese intelligence estimates of one or more North Korean nuclear weapons have been around for some time, as have reports of nuclear cooperation among North Korea, Pakistan and former Soviet states.

Despite all its saber-rattling, the regime in Pyongyang has been contained successfully for decades, making it appear at times more of a threat from distant Washington than from nearby Tokyo or Seoul, analysts said. Pyongyang may even be hoping with its bombshell disclosure to bargain away a project it can no longer afford, some said.

Assessing how far along North Korea is in building a nuclear bomb is difficult, in part because of how little information the Bush administration has shared, said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"How far the program has gotten is the critical military part of the equation," he said. "The administration knows," but isn't telling.

But experts say, in a violation of the spirit if not the letter of a 1994 Agreed Framework signed in Geneva, the North Koreans apparently switched gears in the mid-1990s from plutonium to a uranium-based development project.

Under the pact, Pyongyang had pledged to give up its plutonium research and other nuclear plans in return for 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually and two light-water reactors for civilian use.

Uranium is mined in North Korea, making it less subject to oversight, cross-border safeguards and probing questions by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency that characterize international shipments of nuclear material.

And while plutonium processing requires expensive and cumbersome equipment that is difficult to hide, uranium operations can be far more modest, said Shin Sung Taek, research director at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

"It's a totally different issue with uranium," he said. "All you need is an enrichment facility, which can be underground and small in size."

Kim Dae Ho, who worked in North Korea's nuclear processing industry before defecting in 1994, said the program was an obvious priority for the regime.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many facilities weren't heavily disguised, although they were well protected. "It wasn't really hidden, but ordinary people simply couldn't go there," Kim said. "The Namchon Chemical Factory where I worked had 10-foot-high concrete fences, electrified barbed-wire fencing and full military security."

North Korea has about 26 million tons of uranium deposits at locations including Sunchon in South Pyongan province and in Kumchon and Pyongsan in North Hwanghae province, South Korean analysts say. Of that amount, about 4 million tons are easily accessible.

It takes enormous quantities of uranium to produce a small amount of the enriched material needed for a weapon, however.

Gas diffusion and the use of centrifuges are usual methods for enriching uranium, but Shin said his institute believes North Korea has probably used lasers to extract the required uranium-235. The other two methods require a huge amount of electricity, of which North Korea is notably short.

While the laser separation method takes less electricity, it's a tedious, inefficient and labor-intensive process.

Military analysts say Pakistan has also been a source of enriched uranium for North Korea, perhaps in return for ballistic missiles. But Shin said he hasn't seen any conclusive evidence.

Pakistan produced a uranium-enriched bomb -- as opposed to India's plutonium-based program -- and its missiles resemble North Korea's, he added.

In addition, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the colorful and controversial "father of the Pakistani nuclear program," made a dozen trips to North Korea in the late 1990s, said Cirincione. The first evidence of enrichment equipment in North Korea also paralleled the appearance of North Korean missiles in Pakistan, Cirincione added.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear device, experts say, a relatively easy event to monitor. But Pakistan may have agreed to test devices and share the results with North Korea, said Hideshi Takesada, professor of the Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto twice visited Pyongyang, he said, amid speculation the two nations were cooperating militarily.

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