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N. Korea weapons estimate to rise

The United States is preparing to significantly raise its estimate of the number of nuclear weapons held by North Korea, from "possibly two" to at least eight, according to U.S. officials involved in the preparation of the report.
One of North Korea's Taepodong-1 missiles, in a North Korean TV broadcast in September 1999.AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The United States is preparing to significantly raise its estimate of the number of nuclear weapons held by North Korea, from "possibly two" to at least eight, according to U.S. officials involved in the preparation of the report.

The report, expected to be completed within a month, would reflect a new intelligence consensus on North Korea's nuclear capabilities after that country's decision last year to restart a nuclear reactor and plutonium-reprocessing facility that had been frozen under a 1994 agreement. Among the evidence used in making the assessment is a detailed analysis of plutonium byproducts found on clothing worn by members of an unofficial U.S. delegation that was allowed to visit North Korean nuclear facilities several months ago.

The increase in the estimate would underscore the strides North Korea has made in the past year as the Bush administration struggled to respond diplomatically while waging a war against Iraq in an unsuccessful effort to search for such weapons there.

Intelligence officials also have broadly concluded that a separate North Korean uranium-enrichment program will be operational by 2007, producing enough material for as many as six additional weapons a year, one U.S. official said.

With Democrat John F. Kerry's presidential campaign planning to highlight the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the leap in Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities during President Bush's tenure could leave the administration vulnerable to charges that it has mishandled the North Korea crisis. Experts said an arsenal of eight weapons means that North Korea could use its weapons to attack neighbors, instead of merely deterring a possible attack.

Based on guesswork
But some Bush administration officials believe the new estimate will help pressure North Korea's neighbors to back the U.S. position that Pyongyang's weapons programs must be dismantled without concessions. During a tour of Asia two weeks ago, Vice President Cheney warned that time is running out for diplomacy as an increasingly cash-strapped North Korea might seek to peddle its nuclear technology or fissile material -- including, Cheney said, to terrorist groups.

The estimates are guesswork based largely on circumstantial evidence, and administration officials in several agencies have yet to agree on specific numbers. The Energy Department has pressed for a higher estimate of North Korea's weapons and the Defense Intelligence Agency believes the uranium program will be operational at the end of this year, but the State Department's intelligence arm has been the most skeptical. The differences in the estimates depend in part on determinations about the power and efficiency of the North Korean design.

Work on the report began late last summer, after the first round of six-nation talks on the North Korea crisis, when various government agencies sought a unified position on the extent of Pyongyang's programs. Much of the report will not be made public, but its conclusions will guide official statements on North Korean capabilities.

In many ways, the official U.S. estimate of "possibly two" weapons lags significantly behind private-sector reports.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London concluded this year that North Korea's nuclear arsenal could reach four to eight bombs over the next year and increase by 13 bombs per year by the end of the decade. The Institute for Science and International Security in Washington recently estimated that North Korea has a maximum of eight or nine weapons.

"It's long overdue for them to do something," David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said of the administration.

Albright said that the January visit of the unofficial delegation -- which included Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory -- brought back evidence that North Korea has reprocessed all 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been held in a cooling pond under a 1994 agreement negotiated by the Clinton administration.

In late 2002, Pyongyang evicted international inspectors observing the pond after the United States suspended shipments of fuel oil because, officials said, North Korea had nullified the 1994 deal by having a clandestine uranium program.

In February, CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress: "The intelligence community judged in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one, possibly two, nuclear weapons. The 8,000 [spent fuel] rods the North claims to have processed into plutonium metal would provide enough plutonium for several more." Tenet added that North Korea is "pursuing a production-scale uranium enrichment program" using technology provided by A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani metallurgist who recently admitted to making millions by providing nuclear equipment and know-how to other countries.

'Probably telling the truth'
The delegation members provided samples of the clothing they wore during their tour of the Yongbyon facility, when the North Koreans showed Hecker a jar that they said contained recently reprocessed plutonium. Albright said traces of plutonium byproducts, such as americium, that collected on the clothing could be analyzed to indicate how recently the plutonium had been processed.

"I think it is generally accepted the North Koreans are probably telling the truth when they say some reprocessing activity took place," said Gary Samore, a weapons expert who was the principal author of the London institute's report.

The earlier estimate was based on calculations derived from the amount of plutonium North Korea was believed to possess -- about seven to 11 kilograms -- and the new estimate essentially reflects the number of additional weapons North Korea could produce from the plutonium derived from the 8,000 spent fuel rods. The calculation in part depends on determining how much plutonium is lost during reprocessing.

Albright said he reached his estimate of a maximum of nine weapons by calculating that North Korea possesses about 37 to 39 kilograms of plutonium and would need at least four kilograms per weapon.

U.S. officials have said Khan told interrogators that in the 1990s the North Koreans showed him three devices they identified as nuclear weapons. The report, which has not been confirmed, would suggest North Korea was more efficient in its use of plutonium than previously thought.

But Samore said he thought it was implausible that North Korea would show its weapons to an outsider, let alone keep them all in one place. He added that it was in Khan's interest to assert that North Korea already had nuclear weapons when he began supplying materials for the uranium-enrichment program.