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Assessing the nuclear threat from North Korea

Secretary of State Colin Powell says the diplomatic track is
Secretary of State Colin Powell says the diplomatic track is "alive and well" as it relates to North Korea.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With questions swirling about intelligence on Iraq's nuclear ambitions, another member of what President Bush dubbed the "axis of evil" says it moving ahead with its nuclear program.

North Korea announced earlier this week that it had finished reprocessing fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium and was moving ahead to make as many as a half dozen nuclear bombs

William Perry, former secretary of state under the Clinton administration warned that this development could pose a serious threat in the near future.

"If all of that is true, then, by the end of the year, they will have six to eight nuclear weapons. They will be in serial production of nuclear weapons, five to ten a year, next year. They will probably test before this year is out," Perry predicted, during an appearance with me on CNN's "Live From" on Thursday.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in his Thursday address to a joint meeting of Congress, connected the new development of nuclear weapons technology to the broader war on terror.

"We know that companies and individuals with expertise sell it to the highest bidder, and we know that at least one state, North Korea, lets its people starve while spending billions of dollars on developing nuclear weapons and exporting the technology abroad," Blair stated.

CNN State Department Producer Elise Labott reports that the Bush administration is working to start a new round of multilateral negotiations to address the escalating situation on the Korean peninsula.

One senior administration official told CNN that talks will include a Chinese proposal to schedule a three-way meeting with North Korea, China and the United States. The United States, however, has been pushing for five-way talks including South Korea and Japan.

Despite the Bush administration's hard line -- consistently refusing to talk directly with the North Koreans -- Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated the strategy to move forward with negotiations.

"So the diplomatic track is alive and well and I expect to see some developments along that track in the very near future," Powell stated recently.

Perry, while welcoming the participation of the Chinese, cautioned that "this problem is so serious to American security that we cannot outsource our diplomacy. We have to be directly involved with the North Koreans on this."

Perry -- who said he had worked privately for months to persuade the Bush administration to change its policy -- decided to go public now because of what he described as the urgency of the situation.

He faulted the administration for its unwillingness to negotiate directly with North Korea. And he contrasted the Bush administration's handling of this problem with the Clinton administration's response to a similar standoff with North Korea.

"We made it clear to the North Koreans that this was a hostile act and we would react very strongly to that," he said. "And that was not done then, so now we're faced with the fact that the processing is, in fact, finished. So they are very close to having nuclear weapons."

Perry warned: "Each month we delay solving this problem, it gets harder to solve."

Judy Woodruff is CNN's prime anchor and senior correspondent. She also anchors "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics," weekdays at 3:30 pm ET.

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