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Atomic Activity in North Korea Raises Concerns By DAVID E. SANGER and WILLIAM J. BROAD
NYT/September 12, 2004

WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 - President Bush and his top advisers have received intelligence reports in recent days describing a confusing series of actions by North Korea that some experts believe could indicate the country is preparing to conduct its first test explosion of a nuclear weapon, according to senior officials with access to the intelligence.

While the indications were viewed as serious enough to warrant a warning to the White House, American intelligence agencies appear divided about the significance of the new North Korean actions, much as they were about the evidence concerning Iraq's alleged weapons stockpiles.

Some analysts in agencies that were the most cautious about the Iraq findings have cautioned that they do not believe the activity detected in North Korea in the past three weeks is necessarily the harbinger of a test. A senior scientist who assesses nuclear intelligence says the new evidence "is not conclusive," but is potentially worrisome.

If successful, a test would end a debate that stretches back more than a decade over whether North Korea has a rudimentary arsenal, as it has boasted in recent years. Some analysts also fear that a test could change the balance of power in Asia, perhaps leading to a new nuclear arms race there.

In interviews on Friday and Saturday, senior officials were reluctant to provide many details of the new activities they have detected, but some of the information appears to have come from satellite intelligence.

One official with access to the intelligence called it "a series of indicators of increased activity that we believe would be associated with a test," saying that the "likelihood" of a North Korean test had risen significantly in just the past four weeks. It was that changed assessment that led to the decision to give an update to President Bush, the officials said.

The activities included the movement of materials around several suspected test sites, including one near a location where intelligence agencies reported last year that conventional explosives were being tested that could compress a plutonium core and set off a nuclear blast. But officials have not seen the classic indicators of preparations at a test site, in which cables are laid to measure an explosion in a deep test pit.

"I'm not sure you would see that in a country that has tunnels everywhere," said one senior official who has reviewed the data. Officials said if North Korea proceeded with a test, it would probably be with a plutonium bomb, perhaps one fabricated from the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that the North has boasted in the past few months have been reprocessed into bomb fuel.

A senior intelligence official noted Saturday that even if "they are doing something, it doesn't mean they will" conduct a test, noting that preparations that the North knew could be detected by the United States might be a scare tactic or negotiating tactic by the North Korean government.

Several officials speculated that the test, if it occurred, could be intended to influence the presidential election, though a senior military official said while "an election surprise" could be the motive, "I'm not sure what that would buy them."

While the intelligence community's experience in Iraq colors how it assesses threats in places like North Korea, the comparisons are inexact. Inspectors have seen and measured the raw material that the North could turn into bomb fuel; the only question is whether they have done so in the 20 months since arms inspectors were ousted. While Iraq denied it has weapons, the North boasts about them - perhaps too loudly, suggesting they may have less than they say.

On the other hand, the divisions within the administration over how to deal with North Korea mirrors some of the old debate about Iraq. Hard-liners in the Pentagon and the vice president's office have largely opposed making concessions of any kind in negotiations, and Vice President Dick Cheney has warned that "time is not on our side" to deal with the question. The State Department has pressed the case for negotiation, and for offering the North a face-saving way out. While the State Department has won the argument in recent times, how to deal with the North is a constant battle inside the administration.

Some of the senior officials who discussed the emerging indicators were clearly trying to warn North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, that his actions were being closely watched. Asian officials noted that there has been speculation in South Korea and Japan for some time that Mr. Kim might try to stage an incident - perhaps a missile test or the withdrawal of more raw nuclear fuel from a reactor - in an effort to display defiance before the election. "A test would be a vivid demonstration of their view of President Bush," one senior Asian diplomat said.

The intelligence information was discussed in interviews with officials from five government agencies, ranging from those who believe a test may occur at any moment to those who are highly skeptical. They had differing access to the intelligence: some had reviewed the raw data and others had seen a classified intelligence report about the possibility of a test, perhaps within months, that has circulated in Washington in the past week. Most, but not all, were career officials.

If North Korea successfully tested a weapon, the reclusive country would become the eighth nation to have proven nuclear capability - Israel is also assumed to have working weapons - and it would represent the failure of 14 years of efforts to stop the North's nuclear program.

Government officials throughout Asia and members of Mr. Bush's national security team have also feared it could change the nuclear politics of Asia, fueling political pressure in South Korea and Japan to develop a nuclear deterrent independent of the United States.

Both countries have the technological skill and the raw material to produce a bomb, though both have insisted they would never do so. South Korea has admitted in the past few weeks that it conducted experiments that outside experts fear could produce bomb-grade fuel, first in the early 1980's and then in 2000.

Senior officials in South Korea and Japan did not appear to have been briefed about the new evidence, beyond what one called "a nonspecific warning of a growing problem" from American officials. But it is a measure of the extraordinary nervousness about the North's intentions that earlier this week, South Korean intelligence officials who saw evidence of an intense fire at a suspected nuclear location alerted their American counterparts that a small nuclear test might have already occurred. American officials reviewed seismic sensors and other data and concluded it was a false alarm, though the fire has yet to be explained.

[A huge explosion rocked an area in North Korea near the border with China on Thursday and appeared to be much bigger than a blast at the Ryongchon train station that killed 170 people in April, Reuters said, citing a report by the Yonhap news agency of South Korea. The United States "is showing a big interest because the blast was seen from satellites,'' Yonhap quoted an unidentified official in Beijing as saying.

[The cause of the blast has not been determined, but the Beijing official said Washington was not ruling out the possibility that it may be linked to a nuclear test. Yonhap reported that a mushroom cloud up to 2.5 miles in diameter was spotted after the blast in remote Yanggang province in the far northeast.] North Korea has declared several times in the past year that it might move to demonstrate its nuclear power. It is impossible to know how such a test might affect public perceptions of how Mr. Bush has handled potential threats to the United States. Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, has already accused President Bush of an "almost myopic" focus on Iraq that has distracted the United States while North Korea, by some intelligence estimates, has increased its arsenal from what the C.I.A. suspects was one or two weapons to six or eight now.

Mr. Bush, while declaring he would not "tolerate" a nuclear North Korea, has insisted that his approach of involving China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in a new round of talks with the North is the only reasonable way to force the country to disarm. He has refused to set the kind of deadline for disarmament that he set for Saddam Hussein.

When asked in an interview with The New York Times two weeks ago to define what he meant by "tolerate," he said: "I don't think you give timelines to dictators and tyrants. I think it's important for us to continue to lead coalitions that are firm and strong, in sending messages to both the North Koreans and the Iranians."

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting for this article.

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911:  The Road to Tyranny