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N. Korea Nuclear Admission No Surprise to US Defense Officials - 2002-10-17

North Korea's acknowledgement of a secret nuclear weapons program comes as no surprise to U.S. defense and intelligence officials. The big question is what the Bush administration might do about it.

Just one month ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was fielding questions about the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction when a reporter asked about the danger posed by North Korea.

The reporter wanted to know whether Mr. Rumsfeld believed the United States should consider a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang given its known interest in nuclear weapons.

Mr. Rumsfeld dodged the issue of what the Bush administration might do, saying only that North Korea represented what he termed a "different situation" than Iraq.

But in his answer, he directly acknowledged that North Korea has a nuclear capability.

"I don't know what's going to happen in North Korea, except that we do know that they are one of the world's worst proliferators, particularly with ballistic missile technologies," Secretary Rumsfeld said. "We know they're a country that has been aggressively developing nuclear weapons and has nuclear weapons."

In fact, intelligence officials say they determined in the mid-1990s that North Korea had produced one and possibly two nuclear weapons.

Until now, however, officials believed the North had frozen work at its nuclear facilities in accordance with a 1994 agreement with the United States.

The fact that North Korea has admitted continuing that work could mean a possibly dramatic reassessment of its capabilities.

That is because a scholar at a conference last year sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency said that, had work not been frozen at North Korea's nuclear facilities, then "these facilities could have produced a nuclear arsenal of 20-30 nuclear weapons by now."

Another continuing concern is North Korea's missile program. In a recent appearance before Congress, CIA Director George Tenet raised the possibility that North Korea might even be capable of delivering a nuclear payload to the United States.

All in all, defense officials say, the new attention on the North Korea threat could complicate planning for military action against Iraq.

As one official speaking on condition of anonymity told VOA, "people are going to ask why we are going after a country like Iraq to stop it from getting nuclear weapons, when there's another one that already has them - North Korea."