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N. Korea May Be Intent on Sparking Crisis

Satellite evidence indicates the regime is bluffing hard or really reviving its nuclear program as the White House focuses on Iraq.

February 02, 2003|SONNI EFRON | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Mounting evidence that North Korea is forging ahead with an effort to set up a nuclear assembly line suggests that the regime in Pyongyang may be determined to trigger a crisis on the Korean peninsula just as the Bush administration is most preoccupied with Iraq, analysts warned Saturday.

Satellite detection of movement around the 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods stored at the Yongbyon nuclear facility means the North Koreans are either bluffing hard or moving fast to start a reprocessing program that could produce perhaps six nuclear weapons within six months, observers said.

Now that the North Koreans have expelled monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, intelligence analysts must assume that the plutonium could be on trucks headed for reprocessing plants, said Leonard Spector, deputy director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The truck movement was detected on or about Monday, just when IAEA and U.N. weapons inspectors were delivering their long-awaited report on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Spector noted.

"They timed the movement of the fuel rods to the delivery of the IAEA report to the U.N. on the 27th" of January, said Spector, a nonproliferation expert who heads the center's Washington office.

He and other Pyongyang watchers agreed that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il appears determined not to play by the Bush administration's timetable, fearing that the United States will finish its invasion of Iraq and then turn its full military might on North Korea.

President Bush has said he has "no hostile intentions" toward North Korea, one of three nations he labeled an "axis of evil" a year ago. But scholars say such assurances may mean little to an isolated regime whose paranoia is legendary and whose enemies are in fact legion.

"If you're North Korea, you're most likely to up the ante on Day 1 of any U.S. engagement in Iraq," said L. Gordon Flake, head of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington.

The Pentagon would not comment Saturday on numerous media reports that Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, had requested additional aircraft and naval forces to maintain the U.S. military deterrent against North Korea if the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier is redeployed from Japan to the Persian Gulf.

But a retired admiral said such requests have been made routinely in the past when tensions are rising on the Korean peninsula or in the Taiwan Strait.

Retired Adm. Michael McDevitt, now at the Center for Naval Analyses in Virginia, called the request a "prudent measure" to ensure that the U.S. has enough of the type of tactical aircraft -- mainly the F-15E, used to bomb ground targets -- to maintain a strong posture on the peninsula even while dealing with Iraq.

"The guy in Korea is counting the number of tactical aircraft he can call on almost immediately," McDevitt said, arguing that Fargo's reported request should not be interpreted as a call for military buildup.

A South Korean Defense Ministry official said Saturday that Seoul has "not received any information" about more U.S. troops coming to the region. The U.S. has 38,000 military personnel stationed in South Korea.

"If the U.S. ... wants to increase its presence on the peninsula, we should discuss the matter in advance," the official said.

Moves that Pyongyang has threatened or could take include testing another of its long-range missiles or testing the conventional high explosives used to set off a nuclear device, Flake said. It could even detonate a nuclear weapon and then declare itself a nuclear power, as India and Pakistan did in 1998. But most analysts believe that if North Korea has only two nuclear weapons, it is unlikely to squander one on a test.

The North Koreans could be reprocessing the plutonium to build nuclear bombs, bluffing about building nuclear bombs or merely moving the spent fuel rods to another location so they aren't a sitting target for a U.S. bombing raid, analysts said.

Intelligence analysts will have difficulty determining whether rods are being reprocessed to extract fuel for nuclear bombs, Spector said.

Telltale gases are released during that process, but it isn't clear whether outsiders could detect that, he said.

"They have the ability to [deceive] us very, very easily," Spector said. "It's like hide-and-seek.... This is critically important material. We knew where it was recently. The North Koreans might have feared we were going to bomb it and make it unusable.... If the stuff if moving around, we don't know where to bomb."

Meanwhile, some nonproliferation experts expressed dismay at a Washington Post report that the CIA told the Bush administration in November 2001 that the North Koreans were seeking to import centrifuges for their secret uranium-enrichment program. The administration told Congress and the public of the program only in October 2002, after it had confronted North Korea and obtained a confession.

"They waited a year to tell anyone, including the Congress, and they've done nothing about it. It's astonishing," said Elisa Harris, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who is now a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland. Harris noted that President Clinton would have been excoriated by hawks in Congress for such a move and charged that the Bush administration is "ignoring this issue, accepting it as a fait accompli and hoping it will go away."

The administration has been under bipartisan pressure in Congress to take a harsher line on North Korea, as well as from security analysts such as Harris who argue that North Korea poses a far greater threat to the U.S. than does Iraq.

As to whether the administration should consider a military option, Harris replied, "All options should be on the table -- including engagement."

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Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.

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