North Korea's nuclear trump card
By Joe Havely
(CNN) -- Does North Korea have the bomb, and is it willing to use it?
That is one of many questions being asked in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and around the world as the war of words over North Korea's alleged nuclear program shows little sign of abating.
North Korea itself has never publicly stated that it possesses nuclear weapons.
Nor has it said that it currently has, or has ever had, a program to develop them.
Nonetheless the almost daily vitriol spouted by North Korea's often-fiery state media does not make the most dovish of reading.
Phrases like "sea of fire", "thousand-fold revenge" and "holy war" (surprising, perhaps, from such an ardently Stalinist state) would hardly seem to indicate a regime actively seeking to be at peace with the world.
Despite this, North Korean diplomats insist their country has no hostile intent.
All of which begs the question: What exactly is North Korea up to?
Does it really have designs on becoming a nuclear nation -- or could it be that North Korea, a deeply paranoid but nonetheless cash-strapped country, is simply bluffing?
To be or not to be?
Whether or not North Korea is a member of the so-called "nuclear club" has troubled Western intelligence services for years.
Despite years of North Korean denials -- or, more often, just plain stony silence -- U.S. intelligence experts say there is little doubt that since the early 1980s North Korea has been actively seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
According to the Bush administration, confirmation of those efforts came in October last year, when a visiting U.S. delegation headed by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted North Korean officials on the issue.
Presented with still classified intelligence documents, Kelly said, the North admitted that although it had shut down a plutonium-producing reactor in accordance with the 1994 "Framework Agreement", it had secretly continued with a program to produce enriched uranium.
Plutonium and enriched uranium are the two main types of fissile material used in nuclear weapons.
North Korea says no such admission took place, although it says it has the right to have a nuclear weapons program should it wish to do so.
Instead, it has accused Washington of deliberately distorting comments it made on its peaceful nuclear program, saying officials had fabricated the admission for their own "sinister intentions."
So who to believe?
If North Korea does not have any plans to develop nuclear weapons, why then did it announce it was withdrawing from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?
Why, if it has no hostile intentions, did it follow that announcement a day later with warnings that it might drop its self-imposed moratorium on ballistic missile testing?
And why has it booted out nuclear inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA)?
The case for the North Korea's nuclear ambitions being purely peaceful could hardly be said to be proven.
One major driving factor, diplomats say, is that the North Korean leadership craves attention.
It also craves food, money and electricity -- those little luxuries of modern living -- and it is willing to push the limits of gentlemanly diplomatic behavior to get them.
At a time when much of the world is focused on a possible war with Iraq, the thinking goes, Pyongyang wants to make sure that it is not forgotten.
To do so, it is willing to play the nuclear card -- perhaps its only real card -- to make sure its voice is heard and, perhaps, to win concessions.
According to Bill Richardson, Washington's envoy to the United Nations under the Clinton administration, negotiating with North Korea is a world away from any other kind of diplomatic exchange.
Upping the ante
"This is not like U.N. or formal diplomacy," says Richardson, a key player in negotiating the 1994 deal and a veteran of diplomatic set-tos -- for want of a better word -- with North Korea.
"When you negotiate with North Korea, this is what happens," he says.
"On the one hand, before negotiations, they're upping the ante with a lot of belligerent initiatives and statements, and then you negotiate with them. This has always been the case."
For its part, North Korea says the decision to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty and perhaps resume missile tests are self-defensive moves it has been forced to take as a result of the "hostile policy" of the United States.
Certainly, since coming to office, the Bush administration has made little secret of its distaste toward the North Korean leadership.
"I loathe Kim Jong Il," the U.S. president is quoted as saying in Bob Woodward's recently published book, Bush at War.
"I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people," the Washington Post reporter quotes Bush as saying.
Whether that actually translates into open hostility though is another thing entirely.
Nukes for sale?
Whilst ramping up military forces against Iraq, all levels of the Bush administration have repeatedly said the U.S. has no plans or intention to invade North Korea.
Indeed, administration officials have even reportedly been banned from calling the situation with North Korea a "crisis" -- the c-word, it seems, might distract attention from the looming showdown with Iraq.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States armed forces are perfectly capable of fighting two wars simultaneously.
The overriding message though is quite clearly that they would rather not have to.
What troubles the Bush administration especially, however, is North Korea's demonstrated willingness to sell arms to anyone with the cash to pay for them.
If North Korea is allowed to become a nuclear weapons state, the fear is Pyongyang might open shop to sell a bomb or two to groups such as al Qaeda willing to cough up the money.
Although there is no indication Osama bin Laden has ever had any connection with North Korea, the theory that a regime desperate for ready money and a well-funded terrorist group might get together is, perhaps, not overly far-fetched.
According to the CIA, the North is thought to have extracted enough plutonium to make one or two nuclear bombs.
That, U.S. officials say, does not overly concern the administration.
The facility at Yongbyon that produced that plutonium was shut down under a 1994 deal with the United States -- a deal which, it has since become apparent, only just managed to avoid military confrontation.
Now though, North Korea says it needs to restart the Yongbyon reactor.
The reason being, it says, is that it needs the electricity after the U.S. suspended fuel oil shipments in retaliation for the North's nuclear "admission."
That claim is disputed by several nuclear experts and the IAEA itself, which says that the amount of power the plant is capable of generating is "irrelevant".
Yongbyon is, however, capable of producing plutonium -- Washington knows that, and North Korea knows that the Americans know.
Hence the rector is Pyongyang's major trump card.
If it is restarted, Yongbyon could begin producing plutonium within weeks -- enough, experts say, for 10-15 bombs a year, possibly more.
If that happens, the fear is other countries in the region -- namely Japan and South Korea -- might then feel obliged to "go nuclear", sparking a dangerous East Asian arms race.
On top of that, U.S. analysts believe North Korea could, within the next decade or so, roll out a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the United States.
The Bush administration though insists that it will not be blackmailed.
The big mistake of the Clinton administration, they say, was the 1994 deal, which effectively paid the North not to develop nuclear weapons -- something which they then went ahead and did anyway.
That "mistake" won't be made again, U.S. officials say.
This still leaves the question of whether North Korea does indeed have a working nuclear bomb.
Without hard evidence, most of what we know about North Korea's nuclear program is educated conjecture.
Intelligence officials in the U.S. say almost all of the North's nuclear research, manufacturing and testing facilities have been built deep underground, away from the prying eyes of U.S. spy satellites.
When dealing with a country that guards its secrets so jealously, the possibility remains that the only way we'll know for sure whether North Korea has a working bomb is when it's already too late.