NO one disputes that North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear-weapons
capability is a significant security threat to the region and to
the United States. South Korea and Japan are major US allies and
trading partners; President Clinton has rightly linked continued US
security to the region's stability.
But many in Washington have been hyping the current crisis over
North Korea and offering unfounded speculation about Pyongyang's
nuclear capabilities, with potentially disastrous circumstances.
Few experts doubt that North Korea is working on a bomb, but no one
knows exactly when they will acquire one.
We do know that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
has conducted eight inspections in North Korea since Pyongyang
signed an inspection agreement with the agency in April 1992. The
IAEA has since confirmed that North Korea had developed the
capability to produce and reprocess plutonium.
North Korea reported to the IAEA that it had produced several
grams of plutonium - thousands of times less than is needed for
even one nuclear bomb. But the IAEA suspects that North Korea has
produced even more plutonium than it admits to. Secretary of
Defense Les Aspin recently disclosed that North Korea shut down its
nuclear reactor for 100 days in 1989, giving it enough time to
remove fuel elements for reprocessing. But the IAEA has not been
granted access to facilities that might enable it to determine how
much plutonium has been produced or if a significant amount of fuel
has been removed from the reactor.
CIA director James Woolsey testified before Congress this year
that the "possibility" exists that North Korea has already
produced enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons. But at no
time has the CIA or the IAEA confirmed that North Korea has
produced and extracted enough material for use in a weapon. And
while there is some evidence that North Korea has been developing
the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons, there is no
reliable information that they have reached the technological point
where they could actually build a nuclear bomb.
DURING World War II, the US developed two types of nuclear
weapons, one fueled with uranium - Little Boy - and a second
powered by plutonium - Fat Man. The physics of Little Boy, which
was dropped on Hiroshima, was so well understood by 1945 that no
explosive tests of the device were necessary to be confident it
would work. Fat Man's design, however, which used plutonium, was
much more complex than Little Boy's and had to be tested to ensure
it would work.
Even if one assumes that North Korea has enough plutonium for
one or two weapons and that it has progressed far enough to
construct such a weapon, it would be very difficult for North
Korea's leadership to have confidence that such a device would work
without testing it first. …