February 28, 2006

US intelligence not certain NK has nuclear arms

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States cannot say for
certain that North Korea possesses any nuclear weapons but
believes Pyongyang has continued to produce plutonium from its
5-megawatt Yongbyon reactor, top intelligence officials said on

In a marked departure from precedent, U.S. intelligence
chief John Negroponte declined to estimate the number of
nuclear devices North Korea might have assembled, despite
repeated questioning by Democrats at a hearing by the Senate
Committee on Armed Services.

"I've been very reluctant to get into numbers," Negroponte
told the panel's annual public hearing on worldwide threats.

"We assess that they probably have nuclear weapons, as they
claim that they do. But we don't know for a fact that they've
got such weapons ... So to then say with precision the number
they've got, I think, would be difficult to do with our level
of knowledge," he added.

"But there's no question that there's a potential there for
a number of weapons," Negroponte said.

The acknowledgment that U.S. intelligence has been unable
to confirm North Korea's status as a declared nuclear power
came as Pyongyang said it has successfully made nuclear weapons
with its own technology and cash.

The U.S. government said in a declassified intelligence
estimate in 2002 that it believed North Korea possessed one and
possibly two nuclear weapons. Pyongyang officially announced
that it had nuclear arms a year ago, and private analysts since
then have said its arsenal could contain up to 12 nuclear

But North Korea has not produced tangible evidence of
nuclear arms by testing a weapon.

Meanwhile, six-party talks on ending North Korea's nuclear
weapons programs have hit a snag over a U.S. crackdown on firms
it suspects of helping Pyongyang in illicit activities such as
counterfeiting and money laundering.

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, director of the Pentagon's
Defense Intelligence Agency, agreed that there was no proof
Pyongyang possesses nuclear weapons but said the country could
soon have the missile capability to strike the United States.

"We assess that they are in the process of developing an
intercontinental ballistic missile that would be capable of
delivering a nuclear warhead, but they have not done so yet,
nor have they tested it," Maples told the Senate hearing.

Maples said U.S. intelligence believes North Korea
continued to produce plutonium for its nuclear weapons program
last year from its 5-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon, where a
larger 50-megawatt reactor is under construction.

"Activity at the Yongbyon 50-megawatt reactor suggests
Pyongyang is seeking to convince Washington it will follow
through on threats to resume construction on this unfinished
nuclear reactor, adding another source for weapons-grade
plutonium," the DIA director said in a prepared statement
submitted to the committee.