North Korea's nukes: advanced, but hidden
Nuclear-safeguard scientists says North Korea has enough plutonium for about nine bombs.
(Page 2 of 2)
Currently, IAEA officials are engineering the language used for North Korean access so it does not appear overly harsh. Words containing concepts like "unlimited," or phrases like "any place, anytime," are thought to echo language used in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was defeated in 1990. Because of that, a new rhetoric is employing such phrases as "full and final," "unfettered access, "complete and comprehensive."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"We need unfettered access, not to punish North Korea, but because there is no way to guarantee any safety otherwise," the diplomat notes. "At the same time, we don't want a US-run verification. If we get that, it will undermine our agency's credibility. We won't appear impartial."
Jon Wolfstahl, deputy director of the Nonproliferation Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been on the ground in North Korean facilities as part of an earlier US program for dismantling the program. He says it would take longer than seven to eight months of "unfettered" access to know the exact state of any weapons development.
"If it's just to find out what happened to the plutonium it would take longer than that," he says, noting earlier estimates that it would take two to three years just to answer questions about programs through the early 1990s.
Now that the US elections are over, it is still unclear how the Bush team will address North Korea. Mr. Wolfstahl feels the talks are fragmenting. Last June, the US appeared to back off from tough language requiring a "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantling" (CVID) - but recent statements suggest the White House has readopted tougher language. Many Asia policymakers in Washington are deeply distrustful of a regime run on the basis of a cult of adulation for Kim, and whose diplomacy is legendary for its cleverness and dissimulations.
Both the US and Chinese team leaders of the talks, James Kelly and Wang Yi, also appear further removed from the process, with Mr. Kelly expected to retire from the State Department and Mr. Yi being assigned to Japan.
Some US experts and even IAEA officials caution against assuming too much about North Korea's capability. They say that in strict empirical terms, there is almost no evidence of bomb material. They describe a world that exists between circumstantial evidence, and hunches. "We can't actually say for certain we know that the North has any processed plutonium," said one Western nuclear expert in Vienna.
Paul Kerr, a specialist at the Arms Control Association in Washington, says that, "You could store it, but there are risks to that. There are safe ways to store it, but that appears to be beyond the capabilities of the North Koreans."
In the past, North Korea has built warehouses that appear from satellite imagery to be the exact proportions for a nuclear plant, and in the right location. But after North Koreans were paid millions of dollars to look inside, it was found to be empty.
Khan and his associates sold at least $100 million of equipment to Libya, including a nearly completed uranium enrichment facility, IAEA officials told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.
IAEA officials and scientists say the North is pursuing its goals no matter the human cost.
Stories and eyewitness accounts of the North's brand of applied science have proliferated inside the IAEA in recent years, including those describing humans doing work that, in other states, only machines would do.
"I've talked to a Canadian eyewitness to the movement of nuclear material out of casks, who saw about a hundred men wearing lead aprons run into the plant and haul out rods one at a time. No other country would accept that, but the North Koreans will do what it takes to reach their goal," the diplomat says.
North Korea's program dates to the early 1980s, when Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, embarked on a nuclear path. By the late 1980s, the state had a reactor running.
The first Gulf war showed that Iraq was quickly developing a nuclear capability. The senior Kim invited IAEA inspectors in, hoping they would verify North Korea's declaration that it had no weapons-grade nuclear material.
Yet new technology and experience derived from Iraq allowed inspectors to find traces of weapons-grade plutonium. This sparked a crisis that led to an "Agreed Framework," administered by the IAEA, between the US and North Korea. But no other activity was monitored except the plutonium fuel rods and several other sites, and was regarded even at the time as incomplete.
"There are no plans for another rounds of talks," says Derek Mitchell, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Right now, the ball is in North Korea's court.
• Howard LaFranchi contributed from Washington.