Conflicting Data Over North Korea (WSJ)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Wed Jul 23 09:06:30 MDT 2003

(One of the reasons Washington has
changed its tune toward Cuba in the
more normal direction we've seen is
that its plate is already so full in all
of its other places that, it seems, it
cannot take on another major fight
at this particular moment. This is a
further example of such pressures
which Washington confronts now.

(Most who read these messages
have no way to know whether or not
US charges against North Korea have
any validity or not. Based on what we
know about US accusations against
Cuba, which isn't conducting any
terrorist acts and Iraq, where none
of the "weapons of mass deception"
have turned up, there's no reason to
take Washington's word for it as far
as North Korea is concerned, either.)

July 22, 2003

Conflicting Data Over North Korea
Clear Way to Avoid Confrontation


WASHINGTON -- North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is
drawing strident protests from the U.S., but the two
countries have good reason to agree on this: A little
confusion on exactly how far the program has advanced isn't
such a bad thing.

With its hands full in Iraq, a possible Liberia intervention
in the wings and major operations continuing in Afghanistan,
the Bush administration has little interest in crossing
swords right now with North Korea.

Continuing uncertainty over whether North Korea actually has
reprocessed significant amounts of spent nuclear fuel to
produce material for nuclear arms prevents the crisis from
reaching the boiling point at an awkward time.

So despite President Bush's declaration in January 2002 that
North Korea is part of an "axis of evil" that threatens
world stability, he sounded almost nonchalant Monday when
asked about the state of Pyongyang's nuclear program.

"The desire by the North Koreans to convince the world that
they're in the process of developing a nuclear arsenal is
nothing new," he said from his Texas home in a joint
appearance with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. "I
mean, we've known that for a while."

For its part, North Korea, traditionally fond of bluster as
a foreign-policy tool, says it has completed the
reprocessing of 8,000 spent fuel rods it removed from its
nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, which would give it enough
plutonium to manufacture about three nuclear weapons. But
that claim is clouded in uncertainty; if true, such progress
would be breathtaking, analysts say, because such a
reprocessing job normally would be at least a six-month job,
and North Korea could have begun the project no earlier than

That uncertainty works to North Korea's advantage in many
respects. The mere bluster wins the world's attention and,
in Pyongyang's eyes, a lever to force the U.S. and the West
to eventually turn over economic aid in hopes of persuading
North Korea to stand down.

But the North Korean regime has no interest in angering its
most important remaining ally, China, which is fiercely
opposed to nuclear proliferation in the region. If actual
proof arises that North Korea is pushing ahead its
nuclear-weapons program as fast as it claims, China might
well bring the debate to the United Nations Security
Council, where discussions about economic sanctions against
North Korea would unfold.

In short, the rhetorical exchanges between the U.S. and
North Korea, coupled with a distinct lack of facts about
North Korea's weapons program, provides a classic
opportunity to advance political agendas by using sparse and
incomplete intelligence. Indeed, it is possible that people
inside the U.S. government may be using intelligence leaks
selectively to push a particular approach to the problem.

The latest twist in the drama came in the form of
unconfirmed reports in recent days that aerial tests from
near the North's borders have picked up indications of
renewed nuclear activity and may suggest the communist
nation has a previously unknown facility to reprocess spent
nuclear fuel.

Amid such concerns, there is little doubt that the Bush
administration is divided over how to face North Korea. Mr.
Bush Monday articulated the official line -- that
negotiation appears to be the best way to handle the crisis.
"I do believe we can solve this issue diplomatically by
encouraging the neighborhood -- the Chinese, the South
Koreans and the Japanese -- to join us with a single voice
that says to [North Korean leader] Mr. Kim Jong Il, 'A
decision to develop a nuclear arsenal is one that will
alienate you from the rest of the world.' "

Others in the administration have suggested that surgical
military strikes, economic sanctions or even an invasion
might be necessary to curb the Korean program. "The
administration is divided in the usual way," says Joel Witt,
an expert on North Korea and a former State Department
official during the Clinton administration. "There are
people who want North Korea to collapse and people who want
to stick with diplomacy. And they're playing this game where
they leak out the intelligence a little at a time, to
reinforce this or that agenda."

Mr. Witt points to the recent speculation in some news
reports that North Korea may have moved part of its
inventory of fuel rods to a secret underground location, far
from its facility at Yongbyon, which is monitored routinely
by satellites and has a well-known nuclear-research complex.
That information may work to the advantage of those inside
the government who want to head off any talk of a military
strike; Mr. Witt notes that if North Korea is moving its
reprocessing facilities around to secret locations out of
the view of spy satellites, that makes a precision U.S.
attack much less likely.

Yet evidence supporting assertions that North Korea is
moving its nuclear processing plants around is weak, perhaps
to the point of being worthless, intelligence officials say.
The intelligence is based on data gathered by sensors in the
region that measure levels of krypton gas, a byproduct of
plutonium processing. But the levels being measured are so
minute that they may be corrupted by background radiation.
The method also uses data on wind patterns to pinpoint
locations of activity, which also may be less than accurate.

In short, the conclusions being drawn from the sensor data
are little more than "a lot of guesses," says one Pentagon
intelligence official.

The U.S. may not be the only country engaging in
intelligence manipulation with regard to North Korea. The
Pentagon official notes that the U.S. shares much of the
information it gathers with allies in the region, many of
which are just as deeply divided over how to react.

In truth, there is no real consensus in the intelligence
community about how far along North Korea is in its nuclear
program or whether its activities have been dispersed,
officials say. Indeed, compared with preinvasion Iraq, which
actually was visited by intelligence officers and was host
to numerous international weapons inspectors, intelligence
gathering in North Korea is much shakier. The Pentagon
official said the U.S. even has trouble getting advance
warning of North Korean conventional-missile tests, which
are conducted in relative openness compared with whatever
nuclear-based activity it may be undertaking.

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