Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Kelly says North may have processed spent fuel rods

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

US President George W. Bush's chief negotiator with North Korea told a Senate panel on Tuesday that it was "quite possible" that the country had turned all 8,000 of its spent nuclear fuel rods into plutonium to fuel nuclear weapons.

The assessment by US Assistant Secretary of State for Asia James Kelly, the who just returned from an inclusive set of negotiations with the North Koreans in Beijing, left open the possibility that while the Bush administration has been conducting painstakingly slow negotiations with Pyongyang, the government there has made good on its threats to produce several new atomic bombs. But after the testimony, Kelly said that formal intelligence assessments of North Korea's arsenal had not changed, and "the operative phrase I used is `we don't know for sure.'"

Until Tuesday, the administration's public position has been that it believes North Korea, at worst, has turned only a portion of the spent fuel rods into nuclear fuel. The rods were under international inspection until New Year's Day 2003, when the North Korean government ordered the International Atomic Energy Agency's inspectors to leave the country. After that, the rods were moved from storage at Yongbyon, the country's main nuclear complex.

Ever since, US intelligence agencies have been wrestling with the question of how many rods have been reprocessed and how quickly North Korea's nuclear arsenal has grown. The country is believed to have produced one or two weapons in the early 1990s, during the administration of Bush's father. If it has now produced five or six more, as some intelligence officials estimate, that could create a far more difficult disarmament challenge: The North could hide several, and perhaps sell one or two, as it has periodically threatened to do.

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