WASHINGTON - North Korean officials told the Bush administration last week that they had finished producing enough plutonium to create half-a-dozen nuclear devices and that they intended to move ahead quickly to turn the material into weapons, senior U.S. officials said yesterday.
The new declaration set off a scramble inside U.S. intelligence agencies - under fire for their assessment of Iraq's nuclear capability - to determine whether the government of Kim Jong Il is bluffing or had succeeded in producing the material without being detected.
Officials said yesterday that the answer is unclear. A preliminary set of atmospheric tests for the presence of a gas given off as nuclear waste is reprocessed into plutonium is the best indicator the United States has to work with from one of the world's most closed nations. The most recent tests suggested that nuclear work has accelerated, but the results were inconclusive. More test results are expected at the end of this week.
"It's the mirror image of the Iraq problem," said one official. "We spent years looking for evidence Iraq was lying when it said it didn't have a nuclear program. Now North Korea says it's about to go nuclear, and everyone is trying to figure out whether they've finally done it or if it's the big lie."
North Korea boasted in April that it was working to convert its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium. The rods had been held under seal by international inspectors until the inspectors were thrown out of the country New Year's Eve. Several months ago, American spy satellites saw the rods being hauled away from a storage shed, though it is unclear where they were taken.
If true, North Korea's latest declaration would pose a direct challenge to President Bush, who said two months ago that a nuclear-armed North Korea "will not be tolerated."
Bush will be faced with difficult choices. He decided it was too risky to take military action against the North's main nuclear reprocessing plant, at Yongbyon, even before the reprocessing started. Now, though, the Pentagon may be asked to revisit the military options that Bush has always said are a last resort.
But the president must also decide whether to negotiate with the North - under its implicit nuclear threat - or hold fast to his insistence that any talks must include the entire region and that nuclear blackmail would be met with increasingly harsh sanctions.
In the months since the spent nuclear fuel rods were transported to an unknown location, North Korea has regularly escalated its rhetoric. First, it said it needed a "strong physical deterrent" to protect itself against invasion by the United States. Then, after the Iraq war, it said explicitly that it needed a "nuclear deterrent."
But intelligence agencies have received scant evidence that the North is building a nuclear weapon, officials said. As recently as two weeks ago, American intelligence officials told South Korea and Japan that they believed that, at most, only a few hundred of the rods had been converted into weapons-usable material. Then they warned that North Korea was experimenting with the conventional explosives that are needed to ignite a nuclear explosion - further evidence of its intent to produce actual weapons. The CIA believes the North may have produced two weapons in the early 1990s, but the evidence is in dispute.
The North's latest declaration came July 8 in New York, during an unannounced meeting between North Korean diplomats at the United Nations and Jack Pritchard, a State Department official who handles North Korea issues.
"They went into new territory," said one official familiar with the meeting. The North Korean diplomats read a statement from Pyongyang declaring that the reprocessing of the rods, a chemical process that the North perfected in the late 1980s after receiving considerable foreign help, had been completed June 30.