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N. Korea’s Nuclear Success Is Doubted

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration has asserted in recent months that North Korea possesses one or two nuclear bombs and is rapidly developing the means to make more. The statements have raised anxiety about a nuclear arms race in Asia and the possibility that terrorists could obtain atomic weapons from the North Korean regime.

But the administration’s assessment rests on meager fresh evidence and limited, sometimes dated, intelligence, according to current and former U.S. and foreign officials.

Outside the administration, and in some quiet corners within it, there is nothing close to a consensus that North Korean scientists have succeeded in fabricating atomic bombs from plutonium, as the CIA concluded in a document made public last month.

Independent experts and some U.S. officials also are skeptical of administration claims that North Korea is within months of manufacturing material for more weapons at a secret uranium-enrichment plant.

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Interviews with more than 30 current and former intelligence officials and diplomats in Asia, Europe and the United States provide an in-depth look at the development of North Korea’s nuclear program, the regime’s elaborate efforts to conceal it and the behind-the-scenes debate over how much danger it poses.

According to these officials:

* The U.S. has failed to find the North Korean plant that the Bush administration says will soon start producing highly enriched uranium.

* North Korea’s attempts to reprocess plutonium recently hit a roadblock, raising new questions about its technical capabilities.

* China rushed 40,000 troops to its border with North Korea last summer after the U.S. warned that the regime of Kim Jong Il might try to smuggle “a grapefruit-size” quantity of plutonium out of the country. No signs of smuggling have been discovered.

The doubts about U.S. intelligence come as the administration engages in a high-wire diplomatic battle over its demand that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program and open the country to inspectors.

Six-country negotiations aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis could resume later this month or early next year. In what some see as a bid for backing from the other parties -- China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- the U.S. has portrayed North Korea as a global threat.

Its language is reminiscent of administration rhetoric before the Iraq war, as is the worry in some quarters that the U.S. is exaggerating the danger to galvanize world opinion against another regime in what President Bush termed an “axis of evil.”

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Even officials and experts who question the administration’s latest conclusions acknowledge that there is ample evidence that North Korea is trying to develop atomic weapons.

But they say that walking into another confrontation based on dubious evidence could make the danger seem more rhetorical than real and could further damage trust in U.S. intelligence.

The administration’s claims about Iraqi unconventional weapons, which have yet to be verified by evidence on the ground, were based on intelligence that seems robust compared to what is available about North Korea.

Recruiting spies there is almost impossible. Military installations are hidden in thousands of tunnels. Few significant defectors have emerged from a country where disloyalty is punishable by death and families left behind face labor camps or worse.

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So the U.S. depends heavily on intercepted conversations, satellite images and intelligence from foreign governments -- sources that many current and former officials say do not bridge the gap between suspicion and proof.

North Korea’s own statements have been contradictory. The regime has said it possesses a “nuclear deterrent,” but has also rejected U.S. assertions about its capabilities.

Charles Pritchard, who resigned last summer as a State Department special envoy on North Korean nuclear matters, said the U.S. is in the dark on essential aspects of the North’s nuclear effort.

“We don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.

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Doubts about the credibility of U.S. intelligence are focused on two frightening allegations. In written answers to questions from a Senate committee, the CIA said recently -- and for the first time -- that North Korea had produced nuclear bombs from plutonium and had mastered the technology for making more.

The agency provided the answers in August. They became public last month when the Federation of American Scientists, a private arms-control organization, posted them on its Web site (www.fas.org).

“We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield- producing nuclear tests,” the CIA said.

Months earlier, a top administration official said North Korea was close to producing bomb material through a separate process of enriching uranium.

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The official, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, told a Senate committee in March that North Korea was within months of being able to manufacture weapons-grade uranium.

Kelly’s statement assumed more rapid technical progress by North Korea than had previous assessments. An unclassified CIA report from November 2002 said that the North was working on an enrichment plant capable of starting production “as soon as 2005.”

Kelly’s remark raised concern because enriching uranium would give the North a second avenue for weapons production and one easier to conceal than plutonium reprocessing.

Analysts said other reports within the U.S. intelligence community have been contradictory and inconclusive about North Korea’s advances in both plutonium bomb-making and uranium enrichment.

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To some, the wording of the CIA report shouted political considerations, not proof.

“ ‘We assess’ means they concluded based upon a judgment of North Korean intent and capabilities,” said Robert Gallucci, the Clinton administration’s top negotiator with the North. “Those are political judgments.”

A former Bush administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he suspected the recent statements were driven by politics. He described it as “a case of pleasing the bosses by telling them what they want to hear or analysts covering their backsides.”

Still, some experts believe the U.S. has enough information to support its conclusion about North Korean nuclear capabilities.

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“Through our close discussions with the United States, we are positive that nuclear weapons have been reached,” said Kim Tae Hyo, a nonproliferation expert at a Seoul think tank.

Bill Harlow, the chief CIA spokesman, declined to discuss the information underlying the agency’s recent conclusions. Nor would he respond to written questions.

Despite the doubts about U.S. intelligence, many experts advocate adopting the worst-case scenario because of the danger of underestimating North Korea.

“If we mean anything we say about weapons of mass destruction being the paramount security danger to our way of life, this is it,” said Ashton B. Carter, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. “It doesn’t get any bigger than this.”

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The weakness of U.S. intelligence on North Korea has been evident for years.

“The many unanswered questions regarding North Korea, including its nuclear program, all reflect an inadequate commitment to intelligence gathering for decades on the part of the U.S. government,” said Keith Luse, a staff member for Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R.-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

In early 1995, Thomas Hubbard, a career U.S. diplomat, stood before a room filled with agents and analysts at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.

Fresh from Pyongyang, the North’s capital, where he had negotiated the release of a U.S. Army helicopter pilot shot down over North Korea, Hubbard had been invited to share his insights.

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“There were about 200 people in the room, many of whom had spent their entire adult lives studying North Korea, and I realized none of them had ever been there,” Hubbard, now U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said in a recent interview.

Donald P. Gregg, who was CIA station chief in South Korea and later U.S. ambassador to that country, calls North Korea “the longest-running intelligence failure in U.S. history.” He recalled an encounter last year with a North Korean official.

“I told him that we’d recruited people in Russia, Iraq and other countries, but we never turned a North Korean,” said Gregg, chairman of the Korea Society, a foundation in New York that promotes U.S.-Korean ties. “He puffed out his chest and smiled.”

The limits of U.S. intelligence were driven home in May 1999.

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Satellites had picked up extensive tunneling at Mt. Kumchangri near Yongbyon, the center of the North’s nuclear facilities.

Before allowing U.S. officials and technicians inside the mountain, the North insisted on a donation of 500,000 metric tons of food. Once the demand was met, the team spent several days exploring the site before determining it was on a wild goose chase.

Other countries with a stake in the crisis have done little better.

China built a potent espionage network inside North Korea when it was the North’s chief benefactor during the Cold War. But as the North grew wary of its neighbor’s aims, Chinese agents were systematically imprisoned or executed over the last decade, according to intelligence officials in the region.

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A senior foreign intelligence official said of the Chinese: “They are now blind.”

The origins of North Korea’s nuclear program and its ultra-secrecy lie in the Korean War. The U.S. bombed the country relentlessly, and historical archives show that Gen. Douglas MacArthur sought 26 atomic bombs to use against North Korean and possibly Chinese targets.

“The leaders were awed by U.S. aerial technology,” said Lim Young Sun, a North Korean army officer who defected to South Korea several years ago. “Since then, they have been digging all the time.”

Lim said he spent 13 years overseeing the boring of tunnels into mountains to conceal everything from aircraft hangars to uniform factories. “If war broke out today and the U.S. bombed all the facilities that they think produce military goods, production will continue,” he said.

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The fear bordering on paranoia that created a nation of moles did not end with the war in 1953. U.S. threats of nuclear attacks resurfaced periodically in the years that followed. Just five years ago, U.S. fighter-bombers simulated a long-range nuclear strike on North Korea.

The Soviet Union got North Korea started in the nuclear business in the 1950s by helping to build an experimental nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang. About 200 North Korean scientists were trained at Soviet nuclear institutes.

U.S. spy satellites detected work on a larger reactor at Yongbyon in the 1980s. The discovery created enough international pressure to persuade North Korea to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985.

In a pattern that would be repeated, the North stalled for seven years before inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were allowed to examine its nuclear facilities.

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The first inspection team arrived in May 1992. Providing new details of the mission, diplomats said that team members quickly suspected the Koreans were lying about how much plutonium had been extracted from fuel rods at Yongbyon.

Plutonium is a man-made element that must be extracted from irradiated reactor fuel for use in weapons. Records provided by the North Koreans said they had reprocessed 30 fuel rods and produced 90 grams of plutonium -- a fraction of the amount needed for a single bomb -- after the plant was shut down for three months in 1989.

The IAEA analysis of laboratory data indicated the reactor had been stopped four times and that the North Koreans had extracted enough plutonium for one or two bombs. Depending on technical capability and desired yield, a bomb requires 4 to 8 kilograms of plutonium.

Inspectors suspected the plutonium was buried in a waste dump camouflaged by new soil and freshly planted trees outside the complex. Suspicions also focused on a nearby building believed to be a reprocessing plant.

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The inspectors demanded access to both sites. The North Koreans refused.

The IAEA, stung by its failure to discover Iraq’s secret nuclear program before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, asked the U.N. Security Council for permission to carry out a special inspection of the North’s suspicious facilities. The permission was granted, but the North still refused and in April 1994 threatened to expel the inspectors and withdraw from the nonproliferation treaty.

The U.S. circulated petitions seeking U.N. sanctions and developed contingency plans for military strikes on Yongbyon.

Then former President Jimmy Carter went to Pyongyang at the invitation of the North Koreans and with President Clinton’s approval. He persuaded the North Koreans to freeze nuclear activities and open talks with Washington.

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This led to a deal known as the Agreed Framework later in 1994. North Korea promised to shut down Yongbyon and stop construction on two larger plutonium-producing reactors. It also agreed not to reprocess the 8,000 irradiated rods it had withdrawn from the fuel core at Yongbyon.

In return, Washington pledged to provide two light- water reactors to replace the mothballed plutonium reactors and to donate 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually until the new reactors started producing electricity.

Without the freeze, U.S. officials estimated that North Korea could have produced enough plutonium for 60 to 100 bombs within a few years. But the deal did not answer the question of how much plutonium North Korea had already reprocessed.

The IAEA inspectors remained to monitor the freeze at known nuclear sites, but were forbidden to visit the dump or other suspicious locations.

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As a result, the estimate by IAEA scientists that the North had enough plutonium for one or two bombs in 1992 remains the best information. It is the foundation of the recent CIA assessment that North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, according to several former officials.

IAEA officials, however, won’t hazard a guess as to whether the North has actually made bombs.

“It would be irresponsible on our part to make any judgment,” said Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the IAEA. “We know they have enough spent fuel for at least a couple of weapons. If they have reprocessed, then obviously they have enough plutonium for a number of weapons, but we do not know.”

Almost immediately after the Agreed Framework was negotiated, there were signs that North Korea was violating the pact. Suspicions focused on craters from 100 nonnuclear explosive tests identified by satellite.

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A plutonium bomb requires an implosion of a fissionable shell into a critical mass. The U.S. suspected the tests were to define implosion characteristics and perfect a detonator, according to experts who viewed the intelligence reports.

There also were hints that North Korea was trying to develop uranium-enrichment facilities. In early 2001, South Korean intelligence told the CIA that defectors and an agent in the North claimed such a program had started a few years before, according to a senior foreign intelligence officer and a U.S. official.

The preferred method of enriching uranium involves spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at high speeds in specially designed centrifuges, slim cylinders about 5 feet high. The result is enriched uranium that can fuel a reactor or, if processed into highly enriched uranium, or HEU, can make a bomb.

The process requires years of development, but enriched uranium offers certain advantages. For instance, reprocessing plutonium requires large facilities easily spotted by satellite.

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Uranium enrichment, on the other hand, can be conducted in smaller facilities easily concealed in tunnels or nondescript buildings. HEU is easier to smuggle than plutonium because it’s less radioactive and therefore less likely to be detected.

In June 2002, the CIA distributed a report to President Bush that stirred further concern. It said Pakistan, in return for ballistic missiles, had given North Korea centrifuge technology and data on how to build and test nuclear weapons based on enriched uranium.

Pakistan has denied providing the technology. The Bush administration has said any such assistance has stopped.

In July 2002, the administration has said, it received intelligence that North Korea’s enrichment program was much larger than was earlier suspected.

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The information indicated that North Korea was obtaining “many, many more” centrifuges than previously thought, according to Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage’s testimony before a Senate committee last February. By September 2002, North Korea had “embarked on a production program” for HEU, Armitage quoted an intelligence memo as stating.

Kelly, the assistant secretary of State, went to Pyongyang in early October 2002. He confronted the North Koreans with the suspicions on the first day of talks. First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju acknowledged that the government was working on enriching uranium, according to U.S. officials.

The North Korean government denied that Kang made such an admission.

The Bush administration declared the Agreed Framework dead. North Korea retaliated by kicking out the IAEA inspectors on New Year’s Eve, disabling monitoring equipment at its nuclear sites and announcing its withdrawal from the nonproliferation treaty.

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The second North Korea nuclear crisis had started, but this time the international community was without a window on the country.

The chief reason that many doubt the administration’s conclusion that the North may soon produce highly enriched uranium is that the enrichment plant has not been found.

“That plant could be anywhere or nowhere,” said a senior foreign diplomat familiar with the latest intelligence.

Gallucci, the Clinton administration negotiator, said North Korea is probably years, not months, away from producing enough HEU for a weapon.

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“If we are insisting on the North Koreans taking certain steps to give up this program, we ought to know what we are asking them to do,” said Gallucci, co-author of an upcoming book on North Korea, “Going Critical.”

Robert S. Norris, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, said it was unlikely that North Korea was close to producing more than a speck of highly enriched uranium. He said similar mistakes had been made in overestimating Soviet military power. “In the vacuum of ignorance, fear fills it up pretty fast,” he said.

There is also skepticism about the plutonium reprocessing and North Korean technical competence in general.

The U.S. said in March that the regime could produce “significant plutonium” within six months. But a senior foreign intelligence official told The Times that technical difficulties had recently stopped the reprocessing.

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Some experts argue that despite doubts about the CIA’s assessments, the mere prospect of nuclear arms in the hands of an unpredictable, militarized regime requires a tough response.

North Korea is desperate for cash to feed its population of 22 million and maintain its million-man army. Its chief source of hard currency is selling missiles and related technology to such countries as Iran and Libya. U.S. intelligence officials said North Korea also earns tens of millions of dollars a year selling heroin and other drugs on the international market.

Some suggest that trafficking in atomic weapons is a logical next step.

“North Korea is completely amoral, internationally adrift and desperate for dollars,” said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “For the United States, the No. 1 concern is not that North Korea would attack the U.S. with a nuclear weapon, but that it would sell a nuclear weapon to someone who would.”

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Others said there is no evidence of contacts between North Korea and terrorists and that Pyongyang recognizes selling nuclear material or weapons could provoke U.S. retaliation on a scale its people have feared for 50 years.

“Nobody can cross the red line,” said the senior foreign intelligence official. “That would mean annihilation.”

*

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

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