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IAEA: N. Korea could have 5-6 nuclear weapons

Close treaty loophole allowing Iran enrichment, ElBaradei says


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Watch ElBaradei's interview about North Korea on "Late Edition."

U.S. eyes possible North Korea nuclear test preparations.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog says his agency estimates North Korea could have five or six nuclear weapons and any test carried out by Pyongyang could "open a Pandora's box."

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was asked on CNN's "Late Edition" whether the agency's assessment was that North Korea now possesses as many as six nuclear bombs.

"I think that would be close to our estimation," ElBaradei said.

"We knew they had the plutonium that could be converted into five or six North Korea weapons," he said.

"We know that they had the industrial infrastructure to weaponize this plutonium. We have read also that they have the delivery system."

North Korea has not tested a nuclear device, but recent satellite images indicate Pyongyang may be making preparations for one, a Defense Department official said Friday.

That news came just days after North Korea tested a short-range missile, which landed in the Sea of Japan. (Full story)

North Korea halted all cooperation with the IAEA and kicked out agency monitors in December 2002. The country withdrew from the multinational Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003.

North Korea announced in February that it had nuclear weapons, saying it would not take part in another round of six-party disarmament talks because of U.S. hostility toward its government. (Full story)

China and South Korea on Sunday called on North Korea to come back to stalled talks, while Pyongyang hinted it might be seeking a way to do just that. (Full story)

ElBaradei said he was "very, very concerned" about the prospect of a test, which he said "would have disastrous political repercussions" and would represent "a reckless, reckless step."

ElBaradei said he had received no satellite information on the topic and expressed frustration at his options.

"We cannot do very much as an international institution right now on this issue other than to express concern," he said.

A former CIA official was cited in the Washington Post last week as painting a nightmare scenario if radioactive fallout from such a test drifted toward Japan.

According to the former official's scenario, the Post reported markets could tumble in Tokyo and Seoul; foreign companies might pull out of the region, and Washington could debate whether to impose a blockade.

"I'm not sure it is very far-fetched," ElBaradei said about the scenario.

"I think that test could open a Pandora's box, frankly. I do not know what will happen afterwards," ElBaradei said.

Whether the activity observed by satellites is real or simply a bluff, the move "involves crying for help," ElBaradei said.

He urged the international community to pressure the secretive communist country's reclusive leader.

"I think everybody today should be calling Pyongyang trying to persuade Kim Jong Il not to go ahead with such a test," he said.

'Jury's still out' on Iran

Although North Korea's nuclear ambitions appear to represent the most immediate threat, Iran is also a cause for concern, ElBaradei said.

The country has "all the capabilities, the know-how, that could enable Iran to enrich uranium," he said.

"We know that if you have the capability to enrich uranium, you are not very far from the capability to develop a nuclear weapon, should you decide to do so."

Though he said he has no indications there is a nuclear weapons program in Iran, the country is "a work in progress; the jury's still out."

ElBaradei said he was heartened by an estimate from Washington that Iran is at least five or six years away from having a nuclear weapon, which leaves "good room for diplomacy and verification."

Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, has vowed never to stop or suspend for long periods of time his uranium enrichment program, noting that all signers of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty have the right to enrich uranium as long as it is used for peaceful purposes, such as the production of electricity.

On Tuesday, Iran's foreign minister told a U.N. summit reviewing the treaty that the country will press forward with its pursuit of "peaceful" nuclear technology, calling it an "unalienable right." (Full story)

ElBaradei acknowledged it was within Iran's rights to have a nuclear enrichment program, but said that right represents a loophole in the treaty that needs to be closed.

"If every country continues to exercise that right, we are going in the next 10 or 20 years to have 30 or 40 countries, in my estimation, who are virtual nuclear weapon states," ElBaradei said.

"Because if you have the fissile material, you are a few months away from the ability to develop a nuclear weapon, should you decide to do that. And that margin of security is very, very close for comfort."

The solution would be for every country to be able to use reactor technology for electricity, "but not necessarily to sit on that part of the fence with technology, because then we are proliferating in a very sophisticated way," ElBaradei said.

ElBaradei said Iran is giving his agency access to locations it wants to visit, but not as quickly as it would like.

Though issues remain, "we should not forget that the whole enrichment program in Iran is currently suspended, which is a good move," he said.

Bilateral talks debated

Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would not be surprised if North Korea does conduct a nuclear test.

"This is the only card they have to play," the Kansas Republican said on "Late Edition." "I mean, you have a devastated country. I've been to Pyongyang. I've spent some time. It's absolutely a surreal experience.

"I think that basically Kim Jong Il believes that this is his card to play to stay on the world stage to make demands. We hope with the six-party talks -- more especially with China -- we can make some inroads."

The United States has been working to jump-start the six-party talks with North Korea, which also involve Japan, South Korea, Russia and China.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who also is a member of the Intelligence Committee, said she would like to see direct bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea.

"What one should do is meet with everyone and try to see if we can't change his views and change where he's going," she said on the same program. "And we ought to do that at the highest levels."

Roberts disagreed about holding bilateral talks with Kim Jong Il: "I don't know what can be gained from it."


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