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Q&A on North Korea's weapons

Q. Does North Korea really have a nuclear bomb?

A. No one knows for sure. No North Korean nuclear explosion has ever been detected, but it has enough plutonium to make a few bombs, and most experts assume it has done so. Some experts believe North Korea has never tested a bomb because it either doesn't have one or, more likely, it may want to bargain the program away for the right price. Actually detonating a bomb might produce reactions the North Koreans would rather avoid, such as a cutoff of food and oil from China or even some sort of military action to take out its nuclear facilities.

Q. Is the United States threatened by a North Korean weapon?

A. Yes. North Korea has missiles that could hit Alaska and Hawaii. The indirect threat is also great. Japan feels threatened and has many disputes with North Korea, some highly emotional. Japan might be tempted to build its own nuclear weapons if it began to doubt the U.S. ability or willingness to defend it in the face of a nuclear-armed enemy. That could touch off a messy and destabilizing nuclear-arms race in Asia.

Q. Didn't North Korea agree to abandon its nuclear weapons program a decade ago?

A. Yes. The Clinton administration negotiated a deal in 1994 under which North Korea was to shut down and eventually dismantle a nuclear reactor that produced plutonium as a byproduct. In exchange, the North Koreans were to get oil and better relations with the United States. North Korea claims the United States didn't hold up its end of the deal, and the United States charges that North Korea violated the agreement by secretly setting up a uranium enrichment program. North Korea abandoned the agreement in 2002 after the United States cut off oil supplies. North Korea is now believed to have extracted plutonium from spent fuel rods produced by the shut-down reactor and made the plutonium into nuclear weapons.

Q. What's being done to defuse the situation?

A. Five nations—South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States—have been trying to persuade North Korea to restart negotiations known as the six-party talks aimed at finding a deal that would reward North Korea for abandoning the weapons program. The United States insists that North Korea own up to having a uranium enrichment program, which would allow it to build a bomb-making industry and bargain it away. North Korea refuses to admit it has the program, however. China may be the key player. It could pressure North Korea by threatening to allow a sanctions resolution to pass the United Nations Security Council, which it did 10 years ago. China could also shut down oil or other vital supplies that cross its border with North Korea.

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(Compiled by Steven Butler.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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