Monday, July 21, 2003

Radioactive gas detected recently over North Korea by U.S. intelligence agencies is likely to have originated from the Yongbyon reprocessing plant and not from a separate, secret nuclear site, The Washington Times has learned.

Defense officials familiar with intelligence reports said the detection of krypton-85 gas by a U.S. “sniffer” intelligence aircraft is evidence that North Korea has begun producing plutonium from spent nuclear fuel rods.

The detection of the gas, which is a byproduct of the reprocessing method, and limited vehicle and human activity at the Yongbyon reprocessing facility has fueled speculation among some officials that North Korea has a second nuclear reprocessing facility hidden underground in the mountainous communist state.

The New York Times reported Saturday that an intelligence analysis of where the krypton-85 originated suggested that the gas did not come from Yongbyon but a hidden underground plant in the mountains.

However, U.S. intelligence agencies have no knowledge of a second plant, and the likeliest source for the gas is Yongbyon, the American officials said about the New York Times report.

One U.S. official said North Korea has numerous underground weapons and military facilities in the mountains throughout the country, and suspicions of more facilities have dogged the U.S. government for years.

“They keep a lot of bad things underground,” the official said.

In Seoul, a spokesman for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun also played down the New York Times report.

“The president expressed concern about the phenomenon of unclear and groundless media reports,” Kim Man-soo said.

North Korea’s government knows that U.S. intelligence agencies use aircraft, ships and satellites to conduct almost round-the-clock surveillance and has reacted by hiding some facilities and deceiving U.S. intelligence agencies.

U.S. intelligence agencies discovered an underground complex near Kumchangri, 25 miles north of Yongbyon, that was suspected of being an underground nuclear facility.

After years of negotiation, the North Koreans agreed in 1999 to an inspection of the facility in exchange for U.S. food aid. The facility, believed to be either a nuclear production or storage facility, had been emptied in advance. No nuclear material was detected during the inspection.

Also in 1999, U.S. officials learned that parts for North Korea’s 50-megawatt nuclear reactor were missing and they may have been diverted to help construct another reactor in secret.

President Bush sidestepped answering a question about the possibility of a hidden North Korean nuclear plant yesterday.

Mr. Bush said the nuclear crisis can be solved diplomatically and that China, South Korea and Japan can “join us with a single voice that says to [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il: A decision to develop a nuclear arsenal is one that will alienate you from the rest of the world.”

“The desire by the North Koreans to convince the world that they’re in the process of developing a nuclear arsenal is nothing new,” Mr. Bush said during a meeting in Texas with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

“I mean, we’ve known that for a while, and therefore we must continue to work with the neighborhood to convince Kim Jong-il that his decision is an unwise decision, and we will do just that.”

North Korea’s statement last year that it was pursuing a uranium-based nuclear-arms program set off a scramble within the U.S. government to locate a secret plant where Pyongyang could build a centrifuge system to produce highly enriched uranium, one fuel for nuclear weapons.

Three locations in North Korea were possible sites for uranium-based program, separate from the reprocessing of nuclear-plant fuel-rods, which produces plutonium, another such fuel.

The CIA and other intelligence agencies were forced to review their intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear reprocessing after a Pyongyang diplomat said in Beijing in April that reprocessing of the 8,000 stored nuclear fuel rods was nearly finished.

The review concluded that some reprocessing is under way but that it could not have been completed without extremely dangerous efforts that would have endangered the lives of the workers involved, officials said.

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