WASHINGTON — The U.S. intelligence community is monitoring what appears to be preparations by North Korea to conduct a nuclear test, a Defense Department official told CNN Friday. But the official strongly emphasized that it is unclear whether the activity is real or deceptive.
The official said there are indications of North Korea “digging holes and then filling them up with dirt” and that such activity is suggestive of underground test preparations.
But he added, “The North Koreans are letting the U.S. see what they want us to see.”
The official could not say whether there were any indications of a nuclear device or weapon being placed in any of those holes. The U.S. military and intelligence community have long tracked North Korean deception programs and is aware that North Korea may undertake some activities to deceive U.S. spy satellites.
The official said some analysis that dictates against nuclear test preparation activity is that North Korea understands any test would end negotiations with the United States — and most likely with China.
The New York Times reported Friday that recent satellite photographs of North Korea appear to show rapid, extensive preparations for a nuclear weapons test. The report came just days after North Korea — a communist nation led by reclusive leader Kim Jong Il — tested a short-range missile.
In an interview with CNN Friday, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the reports, if true, send a “very, very bad signal to our effort to roll back the North Korean program.”
“I would hope that every country right now, every leader, is on the phone with Kim Jong Il, trying to convince him to restrain from going ahead with this reported nuclear testing,” he said.
ElBaradei said the international community must make clear that it “will have absolutely no tolerance for a nuclear weapon in North Korea.”
North Korean capability vs. activity
In Washington a U.S. official said that while satellite imagery shows increased activity at one of North Korea’s nuclear sites, activity there has “come and gone with varying degrees of intensity” over the months. What remains unclear is whether increased activity at the site is related to North Korea’s intentions to test a nuclear weapon.
The official added that a “working assumption” exists that North Korea can in fact test a bomb without much warning at all. If they do test, said the official, it is a “question of politics and not technology.”
Meanwhile, a State Department official said that while there may be some in the intelligence community who believe North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear test, the “assessment of the broader” intelligence community is that a test is not imminent — and that preparations for such a test may not be in the works.
The official went on to say that the U.S. intelligence community “doesn’t want to convey the idea that nothing is going on” in North Korea, but rather that there is some type of activity taking place. For what, they are not sure.
David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, said a scenario in which North Korea would test a nuclear bomb is extremely troubling, and countries need to brace themselves for that possibility.
He said the situation must be “managed very carefully, so we don’t inadvertently end up in a war.”
“I think one of the important things that the United States and people in northeast Asia should be doing right now is preparing just in case North Korea does test,” he told CNN. “We don’t want this to be a big surprise that leads countries to take very drastic actions — particularly with North Korea, where you never can really predict how they’re going to respond. I mean, we know [if] you push them, they push back harder.”
Albright said he believes North Korea could probably put a “crude nuclear weapon” on a short-range missile that could hit Japan but not a long-range missile that could reach the United States.
He added, “There’s a view that they’re increasing their capabilities to make nuclear weapons, but we remain very uncertain about what they’ve actually accomplished.”
Earlier this week a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman said South Korea and the United States had noticed movements in tunnels in the North Korean county of Kilju. “We have continuously tried to verify the tunnel, but we are not sure of what the purpose of this tunnel is.” He did not elaborate.
The statements were in reaction to a report in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which quoted South Korean intelligence sources as saying they recently got a briefing from U.S. counterparts about activities in the area of Kilju that could be preparations for a nuclear test.
The United States has been working recently to jump-start six-party talks, involving Japan, South Korea, Russia, China and North Korea, to get Pyongyang to end its program.
Last week, President Bush said the six-party talks are the best way to solve the dispute with Kim.
“There is concern about his capacity to deliver a nuclear weapon. We don’t know if he can or not, but I think it’s best, when you’re dealing with a tyrant like Kim Jong Il, to assume he can,” Bush said. “That’s why I’ve decided that the best way to deal with this diplomatically is to bring more leverage to the situation by including other countries.”