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North Korea's nukes: advanced, but hidden

Nuclear-safeguard scientists says North Korea has enough plutonium for about nine bombs.

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Scientists charged with international nuclear safeguards now assume that North Korea has a cache of weapons-grade plutonium slightly larger than a basketball, or enough for about nine bombs - since North Korea, for technical reasons, had to reprocess the plutonium or lose it.

Moreover, they say, any credible future deal with the regime run in absolute secrecy by leader Kim Jong Il will require a minimum of seven or eight months of nearly unlimited access to North Korea - to uranium mines, dismantled plants, research and development, active or retired scientists, all records, and any sites deemed relevant.

Such access would go far past anything Mr. Kim has ever allowed.

Next week is the second anniversary of a standoff between the international community and Kim's regime.

On Dec. 30, 2002, IAEA inspectors monitoring 8,000 spent fuel rods were kicked out of North Korea in a move regarded at the time as a breach of what had been regarded as an inviolable "red line."

The move followed an esca- lation between the US officials and North Korea over a second, secret uranium program the US said the North was conducting.

Six-party talks on Korea hosted by China have stalled for half a year. Kim is thought to have awaited the US elections; Washington is preoccupied with the Iraq war. Yet unlike Iraq, which has proved to have no weapons of mass destruction, the North has, if anything, developed its program with ardor, scientists say - a further challenge to the Non- Proliferation Treaty, global security, and the White House.

Scientists here assume Kim has up to nine bombs of fissile material not only because North Korean scientists are capable of reprocessing fuel rods - but because to the threat of rust.

As time elapsed, Kim had to choose whether to scrap his hard-earned nuclear stockpile or reprocess it, says a Vienna-based diplomat with close ties to the inner circle of Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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