WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is preparing to raise its estimate of the number of nuclear weapons held by North Korea, from “possibly two” to at least eight in a report expected within a month, The Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing U.S. officials involved in the preparation of the report.
The newspaper said the report would reflect a new intelligence consensus on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities after its decision last year to restart a nuclear reactor and plutonium-reprocessing facility that had been frozen under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea accord.
The newspaper said experts believe an arsenal of eight weapons means that North Korea could use its weapons to attack neighbors rather than just as a deterrent.
But some Bush administration officials believe the new estimate will help pressure North Korea’s neighbors to back the U.S. position that Pyongyang’s weapons programs must be dismantled without concessions, the Post said.
The United States, China, Japan, North and South Korea and Russia are involved in six-way talks on how North Korea’s nuclear programs might be dismantled and its energy and security concerns addressed.
Citing a U.S. official, The Washington Post report also said that intelligence officials had broadly concluded that a separate North Korean uranium-enrichment program will be operational by 2007, producing enough material for as many as six additional weapons a year.
The Post said the estimates were guesswork based largely on circumstantial evidence, and that administration officials in several agencies have yet to agree on specific numbers.
According to the newspaper, a detailed analysis of plutonium byproducts found on clothing worn by members of an unofficial U.S. delegation that visited North Korean nuclear facilities several months was among the evidence used in making the assessment, which is expected to be completed within a month.
Much of the report will not be made public, but its conclusions will guide official statements on the North’s nuclear capabilities, the newspaper said.