updated 1/21/2004 1:19:09 PM ET 2004-01-21T18:19:09

An American nuclear weapons expert who recently visited North Korea’s main nuclear complex said Wednesday he saw no convincing evidence that Pyongyang can build a plutonium-based nuclear device, but it most likely can make plutonium.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos, N.M., nuclear research laboratory, also said he remained unconvinced that the North Koreans could convert any such nuclear device into a nuclear weapon. Hecker, who visited North Korea’s secretive Yongbyon nuclear site on Jan. 8 as part of an unofficial U.S. delegation, spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The North Koreans claimed that day that they had reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods to extract plutonium, Hecker told the committee. He said the visiting delegation could not definitively substantiate the reprocessing claim, but said he saw evidence that the North Koreans had the technical expertise to do that.

Program restarted?
Another former official on the trip, former State Department official Jack Pritchard, wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece published Wednesday that all 8,000 rods had been removed from the nuclear site, in what Pritchard called evidence that the communist nation may have restarted efforts to build atomic bombs.

Hecker said he told senior North Korean officials that “there is nothing that we saw at the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center that would allow me to assess whether or not the DPRK possessed a nuclear deterrent if that meant a nuclear device or nuclear weapon.” DPRK is shorthand for the official name of the country, Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea.

American officials have accused North Korea of running a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 deal requiring Kim Jong Il’s government to freeze its atomic facilities. Washington and its allies since have cut off free oil shipments that were part of the accord.

The delegation met with North Korean nuclear scientists, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and Lt. Gen. Ri Chan Bok, the point man with the American-led U.N. Command in South Korea.

Hecker said he believes the North Koreans wanted to show the delegation the site to verify that they had taken “significant actions” over the past year to demonstrate their nuclear capabilities.

He said he decided to accept the invitation to make the trip because of concern over what he described as the ambiguities associated with the country’s nuclear program.

“Ambiguities often lead to miscalculations, and in the case of nuclear weapons-related matters such miscalculations could be disastrous,” Hecker said.

Non-governmental trip
The U.S. government neither facilitated nor discouraged the visit. Participants have provided briefings to administration officials.

While showing interest in the group’s conclusions, the administration has said its focus is on achieving nuclear disarmament in North Korea through a six-nation process that got under way last summer in Beijing.

Efforts since then to arrange a second meeting have not been successful because the parties have been unable to reach agreement on ground rules. Besides the United States and North Korea, other nations taking part are South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Hecker also alluded to the ongoing dispute between the United States and North Korea about whether Pyongyang acknowledged to U.S. officials in October 2002 that it had a highly enriched uranium program in addition to the plutonium-producing capability it possesses at Yongbyon.

“The disagreement concerns a difference between what DPRK officials believe they said and what U.S. officials believe they heard,” he said.

Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan told the U.S. delegation, according to Hecker, that North Korea had chosen the plutonium path to a nuclear deterrent.

Kim also reported to the visiting Americans that the country had no facilities, equipment or scientists dedicated to a uranium-bomb program. Hecker quoted Kim as saying “’We can be very serious when we talk about this. We are fully open to technical talks.”’

Pritchard, in his op-ed piece noted that in December 2002, the North was suspected of having one or two nuclear weapons that were built before the 1994 accord, but it may have quadrupled its arsenal since then.

Fuel rods missing
In the op-ed piece, he accused the Bush administration of relying on faulty intelligence that dismissed North Korean claims it restarted its program at Yongbyon to build a “nuclear deterrent.”

“Now there are about 8,000 spent fuel rods missing — evidence that work on such a deterrent may have begun,” he wrote.

In December 2002, the North was suspected of having one or two nuclear weapons that were built before the 1994 accord, but it may have quadrupled its arsenal since then, Pritchard wrote.

In the op-ed piece, he accused the Bush administration of relying on faulty intelligence that dismissed North Korean claims it restarted its program at Yongbyon to build a “nuclear deterrent.”

“Now there are about 8,000 spent fuel rods missing — evidence that work on such a deterrent may have begun,” he wrote.

North Korea has insisted it needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent against a possible U.S. attack. But it says it will freeze its nuclear programs as a first step in talks if Washington lifts sanctions against the North, resumes oil shipments and removes North Korea from the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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