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U.S. Officials in a Quandary Over N. Korea

Possible next step of trying to block exports of plutonium would be even more difficult than figuring out whether the regime is reprocessing it.

May 08, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Are the North Koreans reprocessing plutonium for nuclear bombs, or aren't they?

Only "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il knows for sure. U.S. intelligence sources say they think North Korea was bluffing last month when it claimed to have reprocessed many of its spent fuel rods, but they can't be sure.

The answer is crucial as the Bush administration wrestles with how to quell North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Washington will judge the Pyongyang regime's intentions in large part by whether it actually churns out the nuclear material that is the stuff of global proliferation nightmares. U.S. officials say they remain convinced a diplomatic settlement is possible, but in case diplomacy fails, the administration is reportedly considering a strategy of preparing to stop North Korea from exporting its nuclear wares.

But some experts warn that blocking exports would be far more difficult than figuring out whether North Korea is reprocessing.

"The idea that we could detect export is a fantasy," said Michael Levi, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists.

Plutonium emits very faint radiation and a grapefruit-sized lump would be enough to build a crude nuclear bomb, he said. "You'd have to shoot down every aircraft, civilian or military, that was headed for any country that was not going to let you inspect the cargo on arrival," he said.

The difficulties U.S. intelligence currently faces -- in estimating whether secretive North Korea has one, two or four bombs, whether it is reprocessing, and whether it has secret underground facilities, for example -- pale in comparison with the difficulty of tracking and interdicting North Korean exports of nuclear material, a Senate staffer said.

"From where do they get the confidence that they can detect exports, when they don't even know the status of production?" the staffer asked. "If they don't know how much fissile material the North has or is producing, how can they detect when or whether the North has begun exporting it?"

Cabinet-level officials met Wednesday to discuss North Korea policy, but no decisions were announced.

"The next steps, which everyone agrees on, are to talk to the South Koreans and the Japanese," a senior administration official said. With South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun expected to visit Washington next week, and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to follow later this month, "we're holding off on any major decisions until we talk to them," the official said.

Meanwhile, intelligence picked up "some curious activity" around the Yongbyon nuclear complex about a week ago, but the telltale signs then stopped, a U.S. intelligence official said.

"At this point, we can't confirm that they have started reprocessing," the official said. "We may know more down the road a little bit, but right now there are conflicting signs."

David Albright, a nuclear expert and former U.N. weapons inspector, said Wednesday that the North Koreans probably have reprocessed some plutonium, though not a large amount.

"Everyone's guessing," said Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank. "We think based on everything we've seen, they've probably started the plant, but we don't know how much plutonium they've separated. It could be very little, it could be enough for a bomb.

"The other possibility, which we can't dismiss, is that they have another reprocessing plant and we cannot detect it."

Since the Clinton administration, intelligence analysts have been debating whether North Korea has secret underground nuclear facilities.

North Korea allowed an American team to inspect one suspected site in 1997, but it turned out to be a bare cave. The U.S. intelligence official said there would probably be ways of detecting an underground plutonium processing facility, but declined to elaborate.

Experts said the administration's efforts to detect reprocessing have been complicated in recent weeks by cloud cover over North Korea hindering observation. The U.S. also has a limited ability to detect a telltale gas, krypton-85, that is a byproduct of plutonium reprocessing.

Whiffs of that inert gas have been picked up -- but not a steady stream. And it isn't clear that the puffs came from North Korea and not from plutonium plants in China or Japan.

"The problem is that it's a noisy part of the world for krypton-85," Levi said.

Another problem is that while satellites monitoring the Yongbyon plant can detect heat emissions that indicate it is running, the emissions don't show whether it is reprocessing nuclear material.

"It's like trying to tell if someone is toasting bread," Levi said. "You can tell if the toaster is on, but you can't tell if there's any bread inside."

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