North Korean nuclear documents challenge CIA assertions

WASHINGTON — Thousands of pages of nuclear documents submitted by North Korea earlier this month cast doubt on a U.S. intelligence estimate of how much weapons-grade plutonium the secretive communist country has been able to amass, U.S. officials and a leading private analyst said Wednesday.

An initial review of the documents, they said, provides no evidence that communist North Korea covertly extracted plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, from its reactor complex at Yongbyon before 1992.

Some CIA officials have alleged that North Korea had done so, meaning that it could have more plutonium, and thus the capacity to make more nuclear weapons, than it's admitted. In an unclassified document provided to Congress in 2002, the CIA estimated North Korea had one or possibly two nuclear weapons using plutonium produced prior to 1992.

North Korea has acknowledged extracting plutonium from spent reactor fuel in 1994 and 2005. The question of how much nuclear fuel the isolated North Korean regime manufactured is critical to a historic nuclear disarmament deal that President Bush hopes to conclude with North Korea before his presidency ends in January.

The deal already faces a skeptical reception in Congress, and the new documents are bound to rekindle a debate over North Korea's trustworthiness.

A U.S. official acknowledged that the records don't show a pre-1992 North Korea program to produce plutonium. However, he added: "Bear in mind that these are North Korean records, and that they might not always be entirely accurate."

Nobody in the U.S. government, he added, "is going to swallow these things whole."

The U.S. official and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the documents are still being analyzed. One State Department official said that an order had gone out not to discuss their contents.

David Albright, a former United Nations nuclear inspector who consults frequently with the U.S. government, said the reactor records turned over by North Korea are "consistent with what they've said."

The CIA's contention that Pyongyang extracted plutonium prior to 1992 "is not supported in the record," said Albright, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The trove of documents "is internally consistent, and to forge it would be tremendously difficult," he added.

North Korea on May 8 turned over 18,822 pages of documents to Sung Kim, the director of the State Department's Korean affairs office.

The documents, which are copies of the originals, are in Korean and, to complicate matters further, are scattered with hand-written notations.

They purport to be the complete operating records, dating to 1986, for the North's 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon and an associated reprocessing plant that chemically extracts plutonium from irradiated uranium fuel rods.

News reports in late December said North Korea had told the United States that its plutonium stockpile was about 30 kilograms, or 66 pounds. It takes six to seven kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear weapon.

Albright's group estimated in 2007 that North Korea had between 28 and 50 kilograms of plutonium in a form usable for nuclear weapons. That excludes the roughly five kilograms it's believed to have used in its first and only nuclear test, in October 2006.

The North Korean documents are unlikely to be the last word on whether the Pyongyang regime is admitting the full extent of its nuclear work.

Kim, the State Department official, told reporters recently that they're a "first step" toward verifying the North's nuclear work.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill met his North Korean counterpart in Beijing on Wednesday to discuss a full nuclear declaration the North was supposed to have delivered in December. Hill didn't announce a new timetable for the declaration.