WASHINGTON — The Bush administration confirmed Friday that recent satellite photos show North Korea may be resuming production of weapons-grade plutonium, and warned Pyongyang not to build nuclear bombs.
North Korea's moves to possibly start bomb production are far more serious than previous steps by the Stalinist regime as it maneuvers to win aid and diplomatic concessions from the United States, experts said.
Satellite photos taken this week have shown covered trucks pulling up to a building at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, where about 8,000 spent fuel rods are stored. The activity at Yongbyon increases the pressure for a response from the Bush administration, which has been trying to keep the North Korean crisis out of the spotlight as it presses its campaign to disarm Iraq.
U.S. officials said the purpose of the activity at Yongbyon is not completely clear, but it could mean that North Korea is making good on threats to begin extracting plutonium from spent fuel to build nuclear weapons, a process that could yield weapons within several months.
Although "we don't know for sure what's happening ... you've got to be concerned that spent fuel rods are being brought out of the facility," said one U.S. official.
Some experts said they fear the United States may not be able to accept the idea of a North Korea producing a large number of nuclear weapons that it could use or sell or that might fall into the wrong hands. U.S. officials believe Pyongyang already has one or two nuclear weapons.
"I'm increasingly worried that the risks of a North Korean miscalculation are going up rapidly," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington. Flake said he still considers a U.S. military strike unlikely, but "there's a risk of [North Korea] crossing a publicly unspoken red line and putting us into a real dangerous situation."
Administration officials declined public comment on intelligence reports, but Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman, said that any movement of the fuel rods "would be a very serious development for the international community."
"Reprocessing the spent fuel is clearly a step in the direction of nuclear weapons," Boucher said, and urged North Korea to abide by its past promises not to build nuclear weapons.
At the same time, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell emphasized in a speech Friday that the United States "has no intention of attacking North Korea." Powell said the U.S. wants to convey this message to North Korea in a way that "makes sense and is unmistakable." Since the crisis began heating up in December, North Korea has repeatedly called on Washington to agree to a nonaggression pact that would guarantee the regime's security.
But there were signs Friday that the administration has not taken the military option off the table.
Pentagon officials described Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as being "immersed in the North Korean crisis," even as he prepares for a possible war on Iraq. Officials said Rumsfeld has been reviewing military options on North Korea.
The satellite pictures were taken so recently that there has not been enough time to establish a pattern or determine exactly what the North Koreans are doing, U.S. officials said.
One official said there is no way of knowing for certain from the images whether rods have been loaded into the trucks and moved. Trucks do not need to be specially equipped to handle fuel rods, which can be transported in containers.
Asked whether the intelligence community interprets the satellite images as evidence of a restarting of North Korea's nuclear program, the official said: "It would not be inconsistent with what they implied they were going to do. It looks like it could be continued efforts to reprocess the fuel rods."
However, the truck movement could also mean that the North Koreans are bringing in fresh fuel rods to restart a small nuclear reactor that is nearby in the same complex, said officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog. Pyongyang has said it wants to restart the small reactor to generate electricity.
The confrontation began in October, when the United States reported that Pyongyang had admitted in private talks that it had been carrying on a secret program to build nuclear weapons with highly enriched uranium.
After the U.S. responded by cutting off fuel aid, North Korea kicked out a United Nations weapons monitoring team and threatened to resume its nuclear arms program.
Seeking China's Aid