There is growing concern that North Korea has reprocessed enough plutonium for as many as six nuclear bombs. This apprehension was emphasized in an American newspaper interview with the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In an interview with The New York Times newspaper, IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said he believes nuclear material his agency once monitored in North Korea has been converted for use in four to six nuclear bombs.
Pyongyang kicked out IAEA inspectors nearly two-years ago, and shortly afterwards, removed 8000 spent nuclear fuel rods from a holding pond where they were being stored.
This is the main reason IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said Mr. ElBaradei's comments were not based on new evidence.
"Unfortunately, we have no possibility to accurately check on what is going on in North Korea," she said. "In fact, no one does. All we can go by is assumptions, assumptions that are based, though, on a very good knowledge of what North Korea had, plutonium, what facilities it has, that is a re-processing facility, and what capabilities it has, and that are scientists with the know-how. So, one has to assume if there is a will there, there is an intention, that they would be perfectly capable of turning this plutonium into weapons-grade plutonium, and perhaps a nuclear weapon."
Ms. Fleming added that Mr. ElBaradei has repeatedly said in the past that he believes North Korea has re-processed its plutonium into weapons-grade nuclear material. But she added that his comments this time are meant to underscore his belief that the issue is becoming increasingly urgent.
"The world, he believes, should be aware that there is this country there that is not under IAEA oversight, where time is really ticking and where there is this serious concern that they are developing nuclear weapons, and that they will be, if not already are, a nuclear weapons state," she added.
Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye said if North Korea indeed possesses more weapons-grade plutonium than originally thought, the risk that the unpredictable Asian country could transfer the material to terrorists becomes greater.
"When you only have one or two, you are not likely to trade one away or sell it to a terrorist. As the number starts to rise, that becomes more of a danger," he said.
A senior administration official, who spoke on background, said there has been no change in U.S. assessments of the North Korean threat. The Central Intelligence Agency has estimated that Pyongyang may have enough material for only two to three nuclear weapons.
The U.S. official added, though, that Washington remains concerned about the North Korea nuclear crisis. He said the U.S. government wants Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and is working to move forward as quickly as possible with six-nation talks aimed at achieving a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons.