- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

SEOUL — North Korea announced yesterday it is using plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel rods to make atomic weapons.

The claim came amid increasing concern by U.S. intelligence analysts that North Korea might have three, four or even six nuclear weapons instead of the one or two the CIA now estimates.

“The [North] successfully finished the reprocessing of some 8,000 spent fuel rods,” a spokesman from the communist nation’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by its official news agency, KCNA. The spokesman was not identified.

Accusing the United States of having a “hostile policy” toward the North, the statement said North Korea “made a switchover in the use of plutonium churned out by reprocessing spent fuel rods in the direction [of] increasing its nuclear deterrent force.”

When reprocessed with chemicals, the 8,000 rods can yield enough plutonium for North Korea to make five or six more nuclear weapons, according to experts.

North Korea already has said it completed reprocessing its pool of 8,000 spent rods, but yesterday marked the first assertion that it is using plutonium yielded from the rods to make nuclear weapons.

U.S. and South Korean officials have been skeptical that the rods have been reprocessed.

A senior Seoul official, speaking to South Korean reporters on the condition of anonymity, said yesterday that his government was investigating the latest claim. Later, South Korea issued a statement expressing concern about the development.

“This latest North Korean statement could hurt efforts to resolve the nuclear problem peacefully, hurt development of South-North Korean relations and damage the atmosphere of dialogue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said in the statement.

Last month, several U.S. government officials told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that intelligence analysts are debating the extent of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

Among the issues is whether the North has refined its nuclear weapon designs so it can use less plutonium to make a working weapon. Some analysts presume the North Koreans have made steady advances and thus are able to use their existing stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium more efficiently, the officials said.

The CIA has not reached that conclusion, however, and is sticking with its unclassified estimate of one or two weapons, the officials said. Other U.S. estimates put the number at three or four; still others are floating five or six weapons as a possibility.

The United States and its allies are trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programs. Pyongyang has said it will do so only if the United States signs a nonaggression treaty, provides economic aid and opens diplomatic ties.

The nuclear dispute flared last October when U.S. officials said North Korea acknowledged having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements.

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