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Newsday (New York) February 16, 2005

Debating N. Korea nukes

Intelligence officials can't agree on total bombs nation has in its arsenal, but highest tally is as many as 15

By Knut Royce

WASHINGTON - Defense Intelligence Agency analysts believe North Korea may already have produced as many as 15 nuclear weapons, according to a DIA official.

"A dozen to 15, tops," said the official, who asked to not be further identified.

Another intelligence official who works for a separate agency said the DIA's estimate is at the high end of a recent intelligence community-wide assessment of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. The CIA, he said, lowballed the estimate at two to three bombs while the Department of Energy's analysis put it somewhere in between.

Before the recent assessment, the upper number from the intelligence community had been eight to nine.

If the DIA's estimates are accurate, they reflect a belief that North Korea has steadily increased the production of bombs during the first four years of the Bush administration.

The large discrepancies between the estimates also reflect uncertainties about the size of the bombs and whether North Korea has begun producing some from highly enriched uranium, a process the country is believed to have acquired in 2002.

The CIA has been more skeptical that North Korea has had the resources or ability to build a large number of bombs. In 2001, for instance, then-Deputy Director John McLaughlin said the country probably had one bomb. In 2003, the agency wrote the Senate that North Korea had produced "one or two simple fission-type nuclear weapons."

One analyst who believes the DIA is closer to the mark than the CIA is John Pike, a defense expert for globalsecurity.org. "Two to three [bombs] imputes considerable stupidity to the North Koreans," he said.

There is broad agreement that North Korea had enough plutonium to build two bombs when leader Kim Il Sung agreed in 1994 to freeze the country's nuclear program in exchange for Western aid.

In 2002, when the United States confronted North Korea with evidence that it was embarking on a uranium enriching program, the country booted out United Nations nuclear inspectors and intensified its bomb-making capacity by processing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods to produce bomb-grade plutonium.

There is general agreement that the plutonium processing could have resulted in six additional bombs. But there is no agreement on whether the six bombs were actually built.

Pike says he believes they were, and that North Korea may have seven plutonium bombs. He speculates that another plutonium bomb may have been tested in Pakistan in 1998.

But he says there is much less certainty over whether North Korea has built uranium bombs.

"Some would say North Korea is just a bunch of peons and they have zero uranium bombs," he said. "Others believe they may have in the order of 10,000 centrifuges and have been operating them for a year or two, in which case they might have a couple dozen uranium bombs."

Matthew Bunn, a nuclear weapons expert at Harvard University and a former science adviser in the Clinton White House, said there is no evidence that North Korea is producing highly enriched uranium yet. "This is not to say we know for sure," he added.

"Even if you have all the designs, manufacturing manuals and all that, the making of centrifuges and making them run properly" is extremely complicated, he said. "A lot of people have screwed it up many times. And they don't have help from the Pakistanis any more, so it's doubtful they will get going any time soon."

The question of North Korea's nuclear arsenal assumed fresh currency last week when the insular state announced that it had become a nuclear power and declared it would drop out of multilateral talks geared at halting its nuclear program.

If its estimated weapons production continues at the current rate, North Korea may soon catch up with India and Pakistan, which are believed by the nonprofit Center for Defense Information to have between 24 and 60 bombs.

GRAPHIC: Digitalglobe photo - The Yongbyon Nuclear Center north of Pyongyang in North Korea is seen in this satellite image.

Copyright 2005, Newsday, Inc.