Second Guessing

The search is on for krypton 85. At this moment American EP3 spy planes are probably sniffing for trace elements of that radioactive particle floating in the atmosphere near the North Korean shore. If they detect any atypical isotopes, the United States will have the chemical "fingerprints" it needs to prove that Pyongyang is making atom bombs.

The North already claims to be doing so. At the end of a week in which nuclear tensions had fallen palpably in Northeast Asia, Pyongyang dropped its latest bombshell. "We are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase," North Korea's official news agency, quoting an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman, declared last Friday, suggesting that its stockpile might already have been largely converted to weapons-grade plutonium.

But, as is often the case with North Korea, nothing is certain. White House and State Department officials say so far there is no evidence that Pyongyang has jump-started its mothballed reprocessing plant. "Our information is inconclusive," says an administration official, "but the best guess is that they're not." Making matters even more murky, Korea experts at the White House say that Pyongyang's statement could be read to mean that North Korea hasn't begun to reprocess the fuel rods but is on the verge of doing so.

Either version is a provocative pronouncement, especially just days before the two sides were meant to sit down in a long-awaited meeting to discuss the North's nuclear ambitions. For experts, the surprise announcement invites two contrasting interpretations. One is that Pyongyang is simply seeking "to raise the stakes and get the United States to respond on their terms" when the three-party negotiations open in Beijing this week, says Derek Mitchell, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. By that logic, the North's declaration was intended to temper American --bravado following its lightning victory in Iraq; it may even have been meant to counter the impression that Pyongyang "blinked" by agreeing to multilateral talks, rather than the one-on-one dialogue it has demanded for months. That the North may be hinting at reprocessing instead of starting secretly suggests a diplomatic--as opposed to military--agenda.

The other explanation is that strongman Kim Jong Il has decided to build a nuclear arsenal regardless of the consequences. Many experts say Pyongyang's recent behavior foreshadows a nuclear breakout; verification of reprocessing would expose the strategy beyond doubt. That may be hard to get: Bruce Bennett, a Rand North Korea specialist, suspects that the country's late founder, guerrilla fighter Kim Il Sung, buried secret reprocessing plants deep inside caves to avoid detection. "He was a Special Forces kind of guy, and was therefore unlikely to put his only reprocessing plant out in the open," says Bennett. "If we don't know where the facilities are, we can't target them."

That doesn't mean there aren't elements in the Bush administration hoping to do just that. Moderates led by Powell seemingly had the upper hand in the run-up to this month's announcement of three-way talks. Pyongyang's latest antics, says one administration official, have hurt Powell's cause and triggered "ugly" internal fighting. Clearly, the North's latest statement reinforces the view that it lacks the ability or willingness to negotiate faithfully, which gives hard-liners much more leverage. They may again insist that Pyongyang stop uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel before sitting down for talks.

For China, the North's bad behavior is a huge loss of face. Overcoming its initial reluctance, Beijing agreed only last week to be the third party in a discussion between Washington and Pyongyang. Later the Chinese seemed to back off the idea of a real multilateral session, suggesting they would limit their role to that of host. The United States is now expected to push China to take a stand on the North's latest provocation, making Beijing's "neutrality" even harder to defend. The Chinese are likely to hold Pyongyang responsible for their awkward predicament.

North Korea's 8,000 fuel rods contain enough plutonium for up to six A-bombs. Even without confirmation of reprocessing, last week's statement is troubling because it represents Pyongyang's first possible admission that it is pursuing plutonium-based weapons. That makes even more unlikely the "verifiable and irreversible" end to North Korea's nuclear program the administration seeks. And it means the spy planes won't be grounded any time soon.

Second Guessing | News