London -- Pakistan has four nuclear bombs, India 20 and Israel 200, far more than North Korea.
How do I know? I don't for sure; it's my best guess. I'm not a CIA staffer, so my opinion doesn't go into the policy-making machine. But President Carter tells us, following an intensive CIA briefing, that he doesn't think North Korea actually has a bomb, while the ex-CIA director, Robert Gates, says that it probably has one or two. One reasonably informed guess in this business is perhaps as good as another.
I know for certain that Russia has well over 5,000 bombs. And I know, given the growth of the Russian mafia and the weakness RTC of Russian accounting methods, that the chances of Iran or Libya buying a Russian bomb on the black market is higher than their chances of buying one from North Korea. It would probably work better too. Deep down, the Western powers are more worried about the Russian bombs than North Korea's. That worry just hasn't received as much hype.
Neither has the Pakistani bomb, which for years U.S. presidents and Pakistani prime ministers connived to keep secret. Now, Benazir Bhutto herself has confessed to her country's possession. President Clinton accepts this with less fuss than if she'd canceled a dinner date, and even offers to sell her state-of-the-art F-16s as long as she is content with the arsenal she has.
The Clinton administration has introduced into the nuclear debate the quaint notion of "grandfathering," i.e., accepting what has been inherited from Republican administrations; it will contest only future developments. Hence we have passive acquiescence for the nuclear armories of Pakistan. India and Israel, and a readiness to compromise over what North Korea directly has (or doesn't have).
The administration says it draws the line with the spent fuel rods now in a cooling pond under the inspectorial eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency. These rods, it insists, must not be reprocessed, as they could provide plutonium for four to six bombs.
Against the ignorance of the spooks and the dithering of the Clinton administration come the arguments of the hard-liners -- Mr. Gates, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former national-security adviser Brent Scowcroft. They want us to go into battle despite the lack of clear-cut evidence. Mr. Clinton must sometimes wonder if it would have been better to lose the election. Then these Republican advisers would have had to solve the problems that were made on their watch.
Messrs. Gates and Scowcroft argue that the U.S. should hurry to bomb the North Korean reprocessing plant, which if done quickly before the cooling rods are transferred to it would minimize the risk of radioactive fall-out. But if Mr. Carter is wrong and Mr. Gates is right about Pyongyang already having one or two bombs, the revenge could be terribly bitter.
Mr. Kissinger advocates tough sanctions and unspecified "military action." His timetable miraculously allows, during the short three months while the rods cool, for a conference of the nuclear-haves plus Japan and for sanctions. Military action should only occur, he says, if Pyongyang refueled its reactor or started to reprocess the plutonium from the cooled rods.
But he does not fully consider the Gates-Scowcroft point about the radiation danger of an aerial bombardment on reprocessing facilities, as opposed to the ponds. Nor does he appear to worry that North Korea might use the two bombs he believes it has.
If we persist at looking at the problem conventionally it seems insoluble, short of risking nuclear war. We must hope that Jimmy Carter's unconventional breakthrough still has life in it despite the untimely death of Kim Il Sung. That death, by the way, suggests Robert Gates, on no more evidence than you and I have, could have been murder.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.