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North Korea's nukes: advanced, but hidden

Nuclear-safeguard scientists says North Korea has enough plutonium for about nine bombs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2004


Scientists charged with international nuclear safeguards now assume that North Korea has a cache of weapons-grade plutonium slightly larger than a basketball, or enough for about nine bombs - since North Korea, for technical reasons, had to reprocess the plutonium or lose it.

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Moreover, they say, any credible future deal with the regime run in absolute secrecy by leader Kim Jong Il will require a minimum of seven or eight months of nearly unlimited access to North Korea - to uranium mines, dismantled plants, research and development, active or retired scientists, all records, and any sites deemed relevant.

Such access would go far past anything Mr. Kim has ever allowed.

Next week is the second anniversary of a standoff between the international community and Kim's regime.

On Dec. 30, 2002, IAEA inspectors monitoring 8,000 spent fuel rods were kicked out of North Korea in a move regarded at the time as a breach of what had been regarded as an inviolable "red line."

The move followed an esca- lation between the US officials and North Korea over a second, secret uranium program the US said the North was conducting.

Six-party talks on Korea hosted by China have stalled for half a year. Kim is thought to have awaited the US elections; Washington is preoccupied with the Iraq war. Yet unlike Iraq, which has proved to have no weapons of mass destruction, the North has, if anything, developed its program with ardor, scientists say - a further challenge to the Non- Proliferation Treaty, global security, and the White House.

Scientists here assume Kim has up to nine bombs of fissile material not only because North Korean scientists are capable of reprocessing fuel rods - but because to the threat of rust.

As time elapsed, Kim had to choose whether to scrap his hard-earned nuclear stockpile or reprocess it, says a Vienna-based diplomat with close ties to the inner circle of Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"The rods were canned, welded, and placed under water for cooling [in the early 1990s]. But we know the welds were corroding, and plutonium reacts very badly to rust," says the diplomat. "DPRK [North Korea] would have had to reprocess for safety considerations, and that is what we assume."

Access denied

The Vienna-based diplomat says that after December 2002, the IAEA was "blind."

"It can't see inside buildings, we don't have anyone on the ground," he comments. "We [need] six to eight months to restore a loss of continuity of information and knowledge. That means use of whatever technology is needed to verify, and unfettered access."

Such access would fall just short of the carte blanche that IAEA inspectors got in Iraq after the first Gulf War, but would be more than they have now secured through "additional protocols" granted for Iran. In Iran, inspectors have to give a few hours' notice. In North Korea, they will ask for snap inspections. Because it would go far past anything the North has so far allowed, many experts are skeptical Kim will agree to this.

While the IAEA has no direct evidence of an "enriched uranium" program, preliminary results from an IAEA investigation of the network of Abdul Khan, suggests the Pakistani scientist was a major supplier of aid and materials to North Korea, Libya, and Iran. While Libya seemed incapable of taking its program through the steps required to develop a uranium program, North Korea "needed little prompting," the diplomat says.

"You give someone the plans to assemble a complicated piece of furniture and they get home and make it halfway through. Then they have to call for help," the diplomat says. "That wasKhan's role. The Libyans constantly had trouble. We know Khan gave the North Koreans enough to get a good start, and we know they and the Iranians didn't need to call [Khan] as often. The Libyans finally couldn't run this stuff, but the DPRK has the people, trained in Moscow."

For example, the diplomat points out, the North Koreans took the design plans for an early-generation British plutonium Magnox reactor, built a 5-megawatt reactor, and were in the process of building 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. The Magnox had design flaws that the North worked out on its own.

Had the two larger reactors gone online as scheduled in 1995, they would have been capable of producing five to 10 bomb "cores" per year, according to the IAEA's website.

Last December, the IAEA sent a "nonpaper" to all participants in the six-party talks outlining "minimum requirements" for a genuine deal. It included access to whatever people, records, and sites they might deem necessary. IAEA officials want any such agreement backed by Security Council guarantees in case of violations.