North Korea has reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium and appears to have exported nuclear material to Libya, U.S. officials informed Asian allies this week.
Two senior officials on the National Security Council, Michael J. Green and William Tobey, told key officials in Asia about the alarming intelligence, a U.S. official said last night. He said the "sole reason" for the trip -- officially billed as consultations about possible talks with North Korea about its nuclear program -- was to brief Japan, South Korea and China about the information.
The nuclear material that North Korea may have exported to Libya was uranium hexafluoride. This is not fissile material but can be enriched into weapons-grade material if it is fed into nuclear centrifuges. Thus, it is considered material that could eventually be used in weapons, making the discovery of the sale disturbing to U.S. officials.
The Bush administration has been grappling for four years about what to do about North Korea's nuclear weapons program. The new information could raise the pressure to act because it suggests that North Korea not only is expanding its program but also could be actively exporting nuclear material.
The determination that North Korea provided the uranium hexafluoride was made by a technical group within the Energy Department. It examined containers obtained from Libya -- which gave up its nuclear programs in a deal with the United States and Britain -- and picked up signatures of plutonium produced at Yongbyon, where North Korea has its nuclear facilities. The U.S. official said that because North Korea probably would have produced much of the uranium hexafluoride at the Yongbyon facility, this was deemed the link that connected the material in the containers to the North Koreans.
"This was not a conclusion reached by the CIA" or the intelligence bureau at the State Department, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the intelligence matter. "This was the lab technicians from DOE."
He said this gave added credence to the report because it was based not on a murky intelligence assessment but on hard data.
The finding that North Korea has reprocessed fuel rods -- potentially enough material to produce six atomic weapons -- is less surprising. North Korea has long said that it had reprocessed the material, and many U.S. intelligence analysts concluded a year ago that the reprocessing had taken place. Yet it is significant that the Bush administration has decided to brief its allies on its conclusion.
The New York Times first reported last night that North Korea appeared to have produced uranium hexafluoride and exported it.
Talks involving the United States, Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and North Korea have yielded little progress. No meeting has been held since last June, when the Bush administration put its most recent offer on the table. The United States has alleged that North Korea is building a uranium-enrichment program and that it must acknowledge all of its nuclear programs before any incentives begin. But the government in Pyongyang has denied it has a uranium program.
Under the proposal, if North Korea agrees to terminate its nuclear programs, South Korea and other U.S. allies could provide immediate energy assistance to North Korea, which would have three months to disclose its programs and have its claims verified. The United States would then join its allies in giving written security assurances and participate in a process that might ultimately result in direct U.S. aid.
North Korea has indicated a willingness to return to the talks if President Bush does not indicate what Pyongyang calls his "hostile policy" during his State of the Union address tonight. Bush first labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" -- along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- in his State of the Union address three years ago.
But the U.S. determination that North Korea has obtained the material for six weapons under Bush's watch and mastered the art of uranium processing significantly raises the stakes in the impasse over North Korea's programs.
Libya has renounced its nuclear programs, as well as other programs for weapons of mass destruction, and provided all of the materials to the U.S. government for its inspection. The Libya material has exposed a vast nuclear smuggling ring emanating from Pakistan, but the North Korea finding has raised question about whether Pyongyang helped supply other countries.
China and South Korea have publicly complained that the Bush administration has not shown enough flexibility in the negotiations over North Korea's programs.