WASHINGTON -- The CIA has told President Clinton that North Korea probably has developed one or two nuclear bombs, according to administration officials.
The classified assessment -- supported by virtually all intelligence agencies but disputed by the State Department's analysts -- deepens the administration's difficulties as it tries to fulfill Mr. Clinton's pledge that "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb."
If confirmed, North Korea's nuclear status would have significant implications for Asian stability. Many U.S. officials fear that it would touch off an arms race in the region and push Japan into developing atomic weapons of its own.
Some officials contend that the administration is playing down the recently completed intelligence study because it calls into question the effectiveness of its diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
But other senior Clinton administration policy makers question the assertions, arguing that they represent a "worst case" analysis that is based not on conclusive proof but on estimates about the amount of plutonium the North Koreans could have produced and assessments on the pace of their program.
"What the intelligence community is saying is that the horse is already out of the barn," one official said. "It's too late."
Asked about the new assessment, Clinton administration officials said they are still determined to pursue diplomacy to prevent North Korea from producing more plutonium for nuclear weapons, or, if the study proves correct, to force the country to relinquish its bombs.
Pentagon officials have said the option of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea's nuclear installations is not an attractive one, because it would risk a war and because U.S. intelligence does not know where Pyongyang has hidden its plutonium or bomb.
The comprehensive review of Pyongyang's nuclear program represents the collective judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies and was presented to Mr. Clinton and senior White House officials in recent weeks.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin and Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, have alluded to the conclusions of the report but have couched their remarks with more ambiguity than those of the document itself.
The document, called a National Intelligence Estimate, says there is a "better than even" chance that North Korea already has a nuclear bomb and holds out little hope that the Clinton administration can derail the reclusive North Korean government's nuclear program.
Sanctions might not work
It argues that diplomatic efforts or economic sanctions, a next step contemplated by some officials, are unlikely to succeed. The study said sanctions could even prompt an attack by the North Koreans against the South.
Most of the intelligence analysts agree that North Korea is investing significant amounts of its scarce cash in a program to obtain plutonium, develop the high-explosive trigger needed for a nuclear detonation and build a medium-range missile that can reach Japan.
The study estimates that North Korea could have extracted as much as 12 kilograms of plutonium, about 26 pounds, which would be enough under optimum conditions for two bombs.
U.S. officials also said they have detected craters near North Korea's nuclear site at Yongbyon that are consistent with experiments with conventional munitions needed to detonate a nuclear bomb.
Still, U.S. intelligence does not have a specific satellite picture, electronic intercept or agent's report that confirms deployment of a weapon.
State Department differs
The judgment that North Korea probably has a nuclear bomb is supported by almost every intelligence agency, including the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, as well as the Energy Department. Only the State Department's intelligence arm, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, disputes the conclusion, arguing that the data are not persuasive.
On the other hand, intelligence experts assert that the State Department has consistently underestimated North Korea's abilities. Analysts in the Department, for example, for years disputed the notion that North Korea had a re-processing plant for plutonium, accepting North Korea's assertion that the giant building at Yongbyon was a textile factory. The nuclear site at Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of of the capital, Pyongyang, is now the main focus of international concern.
Several officials said the disagreement over North Korea's nuclear abilities turns not only on an analysis of its scientific prowess but also on a fundamental dispute over the intentions of the government. CIA analysts tend to see Pyongyang's leaders as despots who have turned to nuclear weapons to ensure their hold on power. Analysts at the State Department say there are splits within North Korea's ruling elite and moderates should be encouraged.
The new assessment has important implications for efforts by the Clinton administration to persuade North Korea to open its nuclear sites to international inspectors and abandon its nuclear program.
Those negotiations have recently showed signs of progress.