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Steps at Reactor in N. Korea Worry the US
By David E. Sanger
North Korean nuclear facilities Courtesy Economist

WASHINGTON, April 17 — The suspected shutdown of a reactor at North Korea's main nuclear weapons complex has raised concern at the White House that the country could be preparing to make good on its recent threat to harvest a new load of nuclear fuel, potentially increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal.

While there is no way to know with any certainty why the reactor might have been shut down, it has been North Korea's main means of obtaining plutonium for weapons. The Central Intelligence Agency has told Congress it estimates that in the last two years the country turned a stockpile of spent fuel from the same reactor into enough bomb-grade material for more than six nuclear weapons.

The White House's concern over the past week arises from two developments. An American scholar with unusual access to North Korea's leaders, Selig S. Harrison, a longtime specialist on North Korea at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said after visiting the country two weeks ago that he was told by a very senior North Korean that there were plans "to unload the reactor to create a situation" to force President Bush to negotiate on terms more favorable to North Korea.

An international Taekwondo competition Photo Courtesy YNA
That focused new attention on spy satellite photographs of the reactor, which has been watched intensively in recent months. While American officials would not discuss what the spy satellites had seen, commercial satellite photographs of the plant, taken by DigitalGlobe and interpreted by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, show that the plant was apparently shut down or shifted to a very low power level at least 10 days ago, around the time of Mr. Harrison's visit.

Mr. Harrison's message and the satellite photographs present a mystery that has underscored how difficult it is for intelligence officials to decipher the state of the nuclear program in North Korea. The signs could mean that preparations are beginning to extract fuel rods from the aging five-megawatt reactor, the first step in the elaborate process of reprocessing the rods into weapons-grade plutonium. But there could also be more innocent explanations, among them maintenance - or a diplomatic bluff.

"You can't reach any definitive determination yet," said David Albright, a former weapons inspector who heads the institute. He and other experts note that it is uncertain how many weapons the North could produce if it removed the fuel rods, which have been in the reactor for a little over two years. But it would be likely to obtain enough plutonium for at least two weapons, and maybe more, if it had begun to master the complex art of reprocessing the rods into plutonium.

The sole nuclear reactor at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute

Though administration officials strike a public pose of little concern about North Korea's threats, the message brought back by Mr. Harrison has seized the attention of senior American officials as they are debating internally whether the diplomatic approach they have taken for the past two years should be declared a failure. White House officials are a bit skeptical of Mr. Harrison, who has been critical of Mr. Bush's refusal to negotiate one on one with North Korea, and who is often warmly received in Pyongyang, the capital.

"It is still too murky to tell exactly what the North Koreans are doing," said one senior administration official who is deeply immersed in the intelligence. The North has repeatedly publicly declared in recent months that it now possesses nuclear weapons. It recently urged the United States to accept that fact and engage in mutual arms reduction talks.

An Asian diplomat deeply involved in the talks said this weekend that "there seems to have been a decision made by the North Koreans that they are going to plunge ahead and hope that everyone comes to the conclusion that they've made so many weapons now that it's too late to reverse things."

The Yongbyon, North Korea's nuclear center 1989
Mr. Harrison said that in his meetings the North Koreans said they wanted to use the removal of the reactor fuel to force Mr. Bush to "negotiate a freeze" on new nuclear activity, rather than full dismantlement. "They said they will not make commitments on dismantling their nuclear arms, the ultimate step, until we normalize relations with the North," Mr. Harrison said. Mr. Bush has said dismantlement must come first, and he has rejected a new nuclear freeze, saying that a freeze agreement reached with President Clinton ultimately failed.

Still, another senior official, who is a central player in the continuing internal arguments within the administration over how to handle North Korea's mixture of bluffs and provocation, said Mr. Bush would not be intimidated into changing his strategy even if the North raced to produce more weapons fuel. "We still think a peaceful solution is possible," he said. He added, however, that if North Korea refused to return to serious negotiations about disarming, "or takes additional provocative action, we will need to consult with our four other negotiating parties to consider other measures." Taking North Korea to the United Nations Security Council for the imposition of sanctions - a step China and South Korea are desperately trying to avoid - would be among those options, the official said.

The prospect that North Korea may be about to remove fuel from the reactor may also reinvigorate the long-running argument inside the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council about whether the United States should take some kind of military or covert action to prevent the North from producing more bomb-grade fuel.

Ryanggangdo explosion
Satellite photo of North Korea's Ryanggangdo area where a huge explosion recently took place, raising speculations that it Pyeongyang might have conducted nuclear test. The photo was taken on Sept. 15, 2004 by South Korea's Arirang Satelliet.

The nuclear facilities are particularly vulnerable when the reactor is being unloaded and the fuel is being cooled, a process that can take several months. After that, however, the fuel is relatively easy to move and hide, which is what happened after inspectors were thrown out in 2002. Mr. Bush has said the United States has no interest in attacking North Korea, and any strike at the nuclear plant would carry risks of retaliation.

Still, some Bush administration officials now ruefully recall the advice of Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser under President Bush's father, who argued in the early 1990's that the United States should never let the North reprocess its fuel and become a nuclear power. "You could say that Brent correctly predicted exactly the scenario we are in now," one of the current President Bush's strategists on the issue said recently. "The North Koreans have been very smart about how they have gone about this."

The above article is from The New York Times.

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