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Defense Week November 10, 2003

North Korea 'Validates' Its A-Bomb Designs: CIA

By John M. Donnelly

North Korea's nuclear-weapons tests have been sufficiently sophisticated to "validate" the design of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons, the CIA said in a previously unpublicized document.

The CIA statement, contained in an unclassified Aug. 18 letter to Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, appears to be the agency's first public description of North Korea's nuclear testing program, experts said.

The letter takes issue with the notion that North Korea would need to conduct a detectable nuclear test, as India and Pakistan did in 1998, to prove its atomic weapons could work. The CIA suggests, without saying so outright, that North Korea may have a credible nuclear deterrent today.

"We assess that North Korea has produced one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons and has validated the designs without conducting yield-producing nuclear tests," said the CIA letter, signed by Stanley Moskowitz, the agency's director of Congressional Affairs.

"Press reports indicate North Korea has been conducting nuclear-weapon-related high-explosive tests since the 1980s in order to validate its weapon design(s)," the CIA said. "With such tests, we assess North Korea would not require nuclear tests to validate simple fission weapons."

A high-explosive test uses tungsten or some other replacement for the plutonium core used in a yield-producing nuclear test or weapon, analysts said.

John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a security think tank in Washington, D.C., believes the CIA's assessment is probably accurate-and significant.

"Would North Korea have to conduct a nuclear-yield test in order to have a credible deterrent? The answer is no," he said. The CIA letter means the agency thinks the North Koreans "have got the bomb now, rather than that they will have the bomb," he said. The document signifies that "North Korea could nuke Hiroshima without having to conduct a test in advance."

But Pike cautioned that it's possible the CIA knows less than it sounds as if it knows, given the paucity of hard intelligence data coming out of North Korea.

Henry Sokolski, one of America's top experts on North Korean security issues, said the CIA statement is the agency's first about North Korea's testing program and marks an important development.

Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, a research group in Washington, D.C., said the CIA statement contradicts a widespread view in some circles that conducting a yield-producing test is a prerequisite to deploying nuclear weapons.

"The arms-control community ... has oversold the necessity of tests, claiming that they were critical," said Sokolski, who was a Pentagon deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the first Bush administration. "The Iraqis had a working design, and they didn't test. Why should the North Koreans?

"The conventional wisdom amongst the diplomatic corps is that there are an enormous number of firebreaks on the way to a deliverable bomb, ..." he said. "The CIA understands that, as desirable as that is to be true, it's not.

"For people who've been tracking North Korea's activities, what's astonishing is not that they [the CIA] finally said it, but that it took them so long," he added.

A CIA official declined to comment on the letter.

Pressing Washington

The CIA also told the intelligence panel that Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, might still conduct a yield-producing test if he perceives it to be in his interest. But the test would probably be driven by geopolitical considerations, not necessarily operational ones, the CIA said.

"If North Korea decided to escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula, conducting a nuclear test would be one option," the CIA said. "A test would demonstrate to the world the North's status as a nuclear-capable state and signal Kim's perception that building a nuclear stockpile will strengthen his regime's international standing and security posture."

If North Korea had conducted an actual nuclear detonation, the world would probably know about it, experts contended, though Pike said North Korea could have tested without detection by conducting a "sub-critical" test that does not produce an appreciable yield.

The 34-page CIA letter was one of several written by U.S. intelligence agencies over the spring and summer in response to queries from the Senate's intelligence committee. The letters are an annual set of responses to questions for the record posed by senators in the previous February's threat hearings.

The missives provide an unclassified glimpse of the U.S. government's assessment of various threats-from nuclear material in Russia to al Qaeda's cyberwar capabilities to the ballistic missiles China has pointed at Taiwan. (See sidebar story, p. 15).

Although the letters have received no attention in the press, they have been reproduced on the Federation of American Scientists' Web site (www.fas.org).

The CIA letter said North Korea is apparently trying to extract concessions from Washington, in effect practicing nuclear blackmail.

"The North's admission to U.S. officials last year that it is pursuing a uranium enrichment program and public statements asserting the right to have nuclear weapons suggest Kim Jong Il's regime is prepared to further escalate tensions and heighten regional fears in a bid to press Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang on its terms," the CIA said.

A yield-producing nuclear test, if it were to occur, could be an extension of that coercive diplomacy, the agency said.

Kim could export nukes

Separately, the State Department's letter to the intelligence committee stated that, if North Korea judges that it has sufficient nuclear weaponry for deterrence, then Pyongyang may export such technology. Foggy Bottom says it takes the concern about North Korea as a nuclear exporter "very seriously."

In contrast to some assessments in years past, none of the agencies said North Korea is on the verge of implosion or a coup.

GlobalSecurity's Pike feels the CIA's public assessment of one or two North Korean weapons may be conservative. If, as North Korea claims, it reprocessed the 8,000 fuel rods said to be stored at Yongbyon, then "that would give them enough for six more bombs, if not more," he said.

The inventory may be even greater than eight bombs, he said, depending on the level of design help North Korea may have received from Pakistan, which could enable Pyongyang to fashion more bombs from less material.

Sokolski agreed and said the inventory could be even higher-but that the important number is one: He said a single warhead combined with the ballistic means to deliver it gives North Korea a quantum leap in power in the region.

Regarding Pyongyang's missiles, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) letter to the committee said North Korea "may be ready to test" its Taepo Dong 2 ICBM for the first time-"perhaps as a space launch vehicle and perhaps in another country, with little additional warning."

The Taepo Dong 1, which North Korea test-flew over Japan in 1998, was probably a "test bed," and apparently not an asset Pyongyang wants to deploy, the DIA said.

Pike said this view represents a major evolution in the intelligence community's assessment of the Taepo Dong 1, which in the 1990s was viewed as a missile that probably would be deployed, not just tested.

Copyright 2003, King Communications Group