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Pentagon Estimates N. Korea Could Have One or Two Nuclear Devices - 2002-10-17

The Bush administration is calling North Korea's admission that it has a secret nuclear weapons program troubling and sobering.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says that neither he nor any U.S. intelligence officials have personally confirmed their existence. But Mr. Rumsfeld tells reporters at the Pentagon he believes North Korea does now have a small number of nuclear devices.

"I have not touched them... No one that I would have any confidence in their judgment has touched them," he said. "But I believe they have a small number of nuclear weapons."

Mr. Rumsfeld did not elaborate. But officials are privately estimating North Korea could have one or two devices.

Still, officials acknowledge that assessment dates back to Pyongyang's 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons program.

The fact that North Korea has admitted continuing nuclear weapons development could mean a dramatic reassessment of its capabilities. 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, in his words, "These facilities could have produced a nuclear arsenal of 20 to 30 nuclear weapons by now."

Mr. Rumsfeld castigated North Korea for violating the 1994 agreement and three other international or bilateral nuclear accords. He calls its admission bad news.

"I don't think there's any way in the world that anyone could say it's a good sign that when they were called and confronted and told we had evidence that they're violating all four of these agreements by engaging in a highly-enriched uranium route development program for additional nuclear weapons, I don't see how anyone could say that's a good sign," he said. "They were told we had that evidence. They denied it. The next morning they came back and confessed it."

Mr. Rumsfeld says that by its action, North Korea was jeopardizing billions of dollars in aid. He says the United States is now consulting with its allies in Asia and elsewhere about the matter. He refuses to say whether the North Korean disclosure could have any military impact.

But when asked to compare North Korea to Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld asserts Iraq has unique characteristics that distinguish it, including a weapons of mass destruction program that merits special attention. The Bush administration has warned Iraq to disarm or face possible military action.