- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

A leading U.S. scientist who toured North Korea’s main nuclear complex this month said yesterday he saw no clear evidence the reclusive state can produce an atomic bomb, even though it can probably make weapons-grade plutonium.

Siegfried Hecker, former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory, warned, however, that the North’s nuclear program is still too dangerous to be ignored by policy-makers.

He said that 8,000 spent fuel rods, which had been canned for nearly eight years, had been removed from their holding pond. While there was no proof they had been reprocessed to extract plutonium, the North Koreans are capable of doing so, he said.

“What they did demonstrate is that they have the industrial-scale capability, the equipment and the technical know-how to do all of that,” Mr. Hecker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The North Koreans showed that they “most likely had the capability to make plutonium metal,” but “I saw nothing and spoke to no one who could convince me that they could build a nuclear device with that metal and that they could weaponize such a device into a delivery vehicle,” he said.

Asked by reporters after his testimony about the likelihood that Pyongyang has full-fledged nuclear weapons, Mr. Hecker said: “It would be a poor assumption to think that the North Koreans would not be able to build some sort of a rudimentary nuclear device.”

U.S. intelligence has maintained for years that the North could have built up to two nuclear weapons by the beginning of the 1990s.

Based on an estimate that the fuel rods contain between 55 and 66 pounds of plutonium, analysts say that a half-dozen new weapons could be produced.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank, said in a study published yesterday that North Korea could have up to 12 nuclear weapons within the next few years.

The North said last year that it reprocessed all spent fuel rods between January and June, but that claim has not been substantiated by U.S. or independent sources.

Mr. Hecker visited the Yongbyon nuclear complex Jan. 8 as part of an unofficial U.S. delegation. Also visiting were Jack Pritchard, the State Department’s former special envoy for North Korea; John Lewis, a Stanford University scholar; and Frank Jannuzi and Keith Luse from the staff of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Last week, Mr. Pritchard said Pyongyang plans to use any delays in nuclear negotiations with Washington to make more atomic bombs.

“‘Time is not on the U.S. side,’” Mr. Pritchard quoted Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan as saying. “‘Lapses of time will result in quantitative and qualitative increases in our nuclear deterrent.’”

“Are they bluffing?” Mr. Pritchard asked. “I don’t think so.”

Mr. Pritchard resigned in August over policy differences with the Bush administration.

China is leading an effort to reconvene six-party talks aimed at resolving the nuclear standoff after the first such meeting in Beijing in August failed to achieve any results. Japan, South Korea and Russia are also part of the group.

Mr. Hecker said that, in his view, the North Koreans had agreed to this month’s visit because they hoped to convince the Americans they had sufficient nuclear capabilities to force Washington to the negotiating table.

“The 5-megawatt reactor has been restarted,” he said. “It appears to be operating smoothly, providing heat and electricity, also accumulating approximately 5 kilograms [11 pounds] of plutonium per year in its spent fuel rods.”

He said Yongbyon’s chief engineers took the “extraordinary step” of showing him two glass jars kept in a wooden box inside a metal case, which they claimed contained plutonium reprocessed last year from the 8,000 spent fuel rods.

One glass jar contained 150 grams of plutonium oxalate powder and the other 200 grams of plutonium metal, the North Koreans said.

Mr. Hecker said he held one of the jars in his hands, gloved for safety, to get a sense of the substance’s density and heat content.

“It certainly was consistent with the way plutonium [metal] looks,” he said.

But he was not able to draw more specific conclusions because he could not perform all necessary scientific measurements.

Mr. Hecker also said, as did Mr. Pritchard last week, that senior North Korean officials flatly denied the existence of a program to enrich uranium, which, like plutonium, can be used to make nuclear bombs.

The administration says the North, when confronted by U.S. officials with intelligence during a visit to Pyongyang in October 2002, admitted having a secret uranium-enrichment program.

Mr. Hecker said his delegation was given a transcript of that meeting, which shows that an admission was never uttered.

U.S. officials insist their transcript does contain an acknowledgment of the program. They also say they did not record the exchange but restored its contents by memory as soon as the meeting was over.

Mr. Lewis told the Associated Press yesterday the disagreement may have resulted from a problem in the translation from Korean to English.

He said the North Korean transcript quoted Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sop-ju as saying, “We are entitled to have a nuclear program.”

Mr. Lewis said that in the Korean language, there is “a small difference between ‘to have’ and ‘entitled to have.’”

A single syllable distinguishes the two phrases.

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