- U.S. intelligence agencies have detected
a huge secret underground complex in North Korea that they believe is the
centerpiece of an effort to revive the country's frozen nuclear weapons
program, according to officials who have been briefed on the intelligence
- The finding has alarmed officials at
the White House and the Pentagon, who fear that the complex may represent
an effort to break out of a 4-year-old agreement in which North Korea pledged
to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for billions of dollars
in Western aid.
- The finding also follows a string of
provocations by the North, including missile sales to Pakistan and the
incursion of a small North Korean submarine carrying nine commandos off
the South Korean coast this year.
- The North has said in recent months that
the United States is reneging on its side of the agreement because Congress
has failed to authorize tens of millions of dollars in fuel shipments for
the North. The shipments are the main American contribution to a $6 billion
program, under which South Korea, Japan and other nations are supposed
to finance a major electric energy program as a quid pro quo for the North's
abandonment of its ambitions to develop nuclear arms.
- A senior administration official said
the North had not yet technically violated that accord, called the Agreed
Framework, because there is no evidence that Pyongyang has begun pouring
cement for a new reactor or a reprocessing plant that would convert nuclear
waste into bomb-grade plutonium. The accord explicitly bars that activity.
- But spy satellites have extensively photographed
a huge work site 25 miles northeast of Yongbyon, the nuclear center where,
until the 1994 accord, the North is believed to have created enough plutonium
to build six or more bombs. Thousands of North Korean workers are swarming
around the new site, burrowing into the mountainside, American officials
- Other intelligence, which the officials
would not describe, led the administration in recent weeks to warn important
members of Congress and the South Korean government in classified briefings
that they believed that the North intended to build a new reactor and reprocessing
center under the mountain. Intelligence estimates of how long it would
take to complete the project have ranged from two to six years, depending
in part on how much outside help is received.
- South Korean officials have played down
the finding, officials said, because they fear undermining President Kim
Dae-jung's "sunshine policy" toward North Korea, an effort to
reopen aid and dialogue with the Stalinist government in Pyongyang.
- When Kim went to Washington in the spring
he urged President Clinton to drop sanctions against the North that date
from the end of the Korean War. But the new finding makes it far less likely
that the United States will ease up on the North.
- "It's a very, very serious development,"
said one American official, who like the others insisted on anonymity,
"to say nothing of incredibly stupid, because it endangers both the
nuclear accord and humanitarian aid."
- Other officials said they were clearly
concerned that Congress was now less likely than ever to finance the fuel
oil. If Congress refused to fulfill the American commitment, the officials
fear, that would, in turn, give the North an excuse to abandon the nuclear
agreement officially and, perhaps, to expel inspectors from the International
Atomic Energy Agency who are at Yongbyon. The North has prohibited inspectors
from examining other sites outside Yongbyon.
- At a meeting this week between North
Korean officials and the American special envoy for Korean nuclear issues,
Charles Kartman, the United States is expected to demand that the North
stop all work at the new site. It is not clear whether the North already
knows that its activity has been detected.
- As always in matters involving North
Korea, it is virtually impossible to divine the country's real intentions.
- It is possible, officials say, that the
mysterious North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, is trying to rebuild a nuclear
program that the West stopped in 1994. Kim may also be hoping to bolster
his standing with the North Korean military. This may be a particularly
critical time to placate the right wing, because Kim is expected, next
month, to be given all of the titles held by his father, Kim Il Sung, North
- The elder Kim died in July 1994, just
weeks after having defused the confrontation with the United States by
telling former President Carter that he was willing to trade away the nuclear
program in return for Western aid.
- Another possibility is that Kim Jong
Il is intending to trade away the new nuclear complex the way his father
traded away the last one -- if he can extract a high enough price. American
officials note that building a nuclear reactor underground is an enormously
difficult technical task for any country, much less one that is starving
as a result of economic collapse, drought and floods.
- "Is this a nuclear breakout, a hedge,
a bargaining chip?" asked Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of
Government at Harvard University. "It's hard to know."
- Nye worked extensively on the North Korean
nuclear issue at the CIA and as a top Pentagon official in the first term
of the Clinton administration.
- Nye noted that in 1993, as the United
States was confronting North Korea over its efforts to reprocess nuclear
waste into plutonium, the intelligence community was deeply divided on
the question of whether the North wanted a bomb or was simply playing for
aid. "The majority said the North would never give up the bomb, but
a deal was struck," he said.
- But it is not necessarily certain that
the country would follow the same pattern today, he and other experts warn.
In the four years since the agreement was reached, the North has grown
far weaker, both economically and militarily.
- "The danger is that the weaker they
become, the less willing they are to bargain," he said. "While
that may seem counterintuitive, the North Koreans usually get tougher as
they get cornered. In cultural terms, they may be more willing to accept
risks in a situation of desperation."
- As a result, a number of experts and
former officials, along with many inside the administration, are warning
that the United States should once again be alert to the possibility that
the North could strike out across the demilitarized zone that separates
North and South Korea.
- In recent years the United States, which
has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea, has gradually increased its
defensive posture, including new antimissile and antimortar artillery intended
to suppress an attack on Seoul, which is within 30 miles of the border.
- But the North has also improved its ability
to inflict a tremendous -- if short-lived -- artillery attack on the
South Korean capital.