What everyone already knew seems to be confirmed with this latest CIA report to Congress. Of course, the real report went in some weeks ago but you’re not going to see that one.
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8th
The Central Intelligence Agency has told Congress that it now believes that North Korea has mastered the technology of turning its nuclear fuel into functioning weapons, without having to prove their effectiveness through nuclear tests.
The C.I.A. report goes beyond previous public statements suggesting that North Korea built one or two weapons in the early 1990’s, a figure many intelligence experts believe has risen in the last few months. Those statements carried the presumption that the North had developed the technology to detonate weapons, but in background briefings, some American and Asian intelligence officials expressed doubts. They said that in the absence of a North Korean nuclear test, there was no way to be certain of its capabilities.
Now those doubts appear to be gone. But the reason why is still a mystery, perhaps buried in a classified annex that the C.I.A. also sent to Congress.
The C.I.A.’s notification to Congress, sent in mid-August, reports that while North Korea could conduct such a test, it was probably refraining from doing so to avoid “precipitating an international backlash and further isolation.” For the first time, the agency has publicly stated that the North’s technology is advanced enough that a highly visible test — like those conducted in China in the mid-1960’s and in India and Pakistan in the 1990’s — is unnecessary.
The agency’s new assessment, first reported by Reuters, came in a series of written, unclassified responses to questions posed by members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The conclusion, if accurate, would give credence to recent statements by North Korean officials that they already possessed a working “nuclear deterrent,” and to their assertion that it was too late for the Bush administration to stop it from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power.
The C.I.A.’s judgment complicates the diplomatic task facing President Bush as the United States moves toward another round of six-nation talks with the North, probably next month. Mr. Bush, who declared this year that he would never tolerate a nuclear North Korea, has said the United States is prepared to offer, with other nations, some form of security guarantees to the North in return for its agreement to disarm.
But even if the North agrees, defining “disarmament” may be very difficult. American intelligence officials acknowledge that they do not know exactly how much weapons-grade fuel North Korea has produced this year, since international inspectors were expelled on Dec. 31.
One senior official said on Saturday that the significance of the C.I.A.’s conclusion was that “we may never know for sure how many weapons they manufactured and then hid away in some tunnel.” Even if North Korea agrees to give up both its production facilities and the weapons it has already produced, a step many Korea experts in the administration believe is unlikely, “how would we ever know that we’ve gotten all of it?” the official asked.
The C.I.A. report was in reply to questions posed by senators in the spring. The answers were submitted on Aug. 18, but were not made public until recently. They are written in the arcane language of nuclear intelligence.
“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,” the report to the committee said. The agency appeared to be referring to the kind of basic bomb containing plutonium extracted from North Korea’s nuclear power reactors, not to warheads made from highly enriched uranium.
The agency noted news reports that the North had conducted “high-explosive tests since the 1980’s in order to validate its nuclear weapons design(s).” Those tests, it suggested, made it unnecessary to stage a full nuclear explosion to be confident that the designs would work.
The full document, and another assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency, were posted on the web site of the Federation of American Scientists (www.fas.org), an independent group that analyzes arms control and other issues. The D.I.A. report also concludes that Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, appears to have a “secure” hold on power.
It concludes that the chances for the reunification of the Korean peninsula, divided since the Korean War ended a half century ago, are “low” in the next five years, and that if Mr. Kim were displaced, he would probably be replaced by a military official.
The conclusions give little cause for optimism among those in the Bush administration who hope — as the Clinton administration did — that the government would collapse because of North Korea’s deep economic troubles.
On July 1, a month and a half before the report to the Senate, The New York Times reported that American satellites had been studying an advanced nuclear testing site in an area called Youngdoktong, and that the C.I.A. had told allies it believed that the North was working on designs there that would produce a compact nuclear warhead that could fit onto a missile. Since then, a number of officials have said they believe that there is a weapons laboratory adjacent to that facility; it may be there that much of the work the C.I.A. described has been conducted.
The unclassified version of the statements sent to the Senate make no reference to the size of the nuclear weapons that the North can now produce, or whether they could be fitted onto its missiles, including those that can reach Japan and beyond. Nor does it disclose which nations may have helped the North.
Decades ago, the country received early aid on its nuclear program from China, which is now working with the Bush administration to prevent North Korea from going nuclear. Several years ago it reached a deal with Pakistan that swapped North Korean missile technology for Pakistani nuclear aid; many experts believe that it was the Pakistani connection that allowed North Korea to make the final leap.
Pakistan’s president, Pervez Musharraf, has denied that his country is currently helping North Korea, but he has been vague when asked about any past assistance. He repeated those denials last week.
Pakistan’s aid was chiefly related to a second, secret nuclear project in North Korea, involving the production of highly enriched uranium, which intelligence agencies concluded probably had not yet produced a weapon.
It is unclear if Pakistan or other nations have given recent help to the older North Korean project, which involves producing weapons from spent nuclear fuel.
Pakistan and India each conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and the United States responded by imposing sanctions on both. It removed them later, in Pakistan’s case after it offered help after the Sept. 11 attacks.