The crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme deepened yesterday as the North claimed it had made enough plutonium for six atomic bombs, and a former US Defence Secretary warned that the two countries could be at war by the end of the year.
The latest claim from Pyongyang was communicated to the Bush administration last week, three months after North Korea said it was beginning to reprocess 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods that were under United Nations seal until the UN inspectors were ejected from the country at the end of 2002.
US intelligence agencies are now trying to determine whether the boast is true or merely another bluff by the reclusive Stalinist regime.
Either way, the declaration has pushed the US President a step nearer deciding whether to accede to North Korea's demand for direct negotiations - and thus drop his previous insistence that he would never bow to "nuclear blackmail" - or to accelerate plans for a military strike against the North's nuclear installations.
That spectre was raised yesterday by William Perry, Defence Secretary under President Clinton, when he told The Washington Post that the Bush administration was "losing control" of the situation.
Mr Perry is a specialist on Korea who helped prepare the military action which Mr Clinton came close to launching against Yongbyon and other key North Korean sites in 1994. He now fears that the North is not only close to a nuclear test to show the world it is a nuclear power, but also that it could sell a weapon to a terrorist group for use against the US.
"The nuclear programme now under way in North Korea poses an imminent danger of nuclear weapons being detonated in American cities," Mr Perry said, adding that he had reached that conclusion after talks with Bush officials in Washington, and with senior figures in China and South Korea.
China, reckoned to have the greatest leverage over of Kim Jong Il's renegade state, launched a new effort this week to draw the North into regional talks to defuse the crisis, but Mr Perry told The Washington Post that as far as he could see, the "diplomatic track is inconsequential" and going nowhere.
The Korean crisis has been largely ignored as Washington has focused almost exclusively on Iraq. The public line is that the US wants a diplomatic solution, and that the multilateral approach is working. But Mr Bush has refused the close engagement sought by the North, which has in response edged closer to the nuclear brink.
Mr Perry said with uncharacteristic bluntness: "The reason we don't have a policy on this and aren't negotiating is the President himself. I think he has come to the conclusion that Kim Jong Il is evil and loathsome and that it is immoral to negotiate with him."
The CIA has long suspected that North Korea had one or two nuclear devices, using plutonium produced before the 1994 crisis. But last autumn North Korea stunned the US by announcing, that in addition to the plutonium-based programme frozen under the deal that year with Washington, it was conducting a parallel nuclear programme, based on enriched plutonium technology.
A few weeks later the UN inspectors were thrown out. Washington is now desperately trying to establish whether Pyongyang's latest boasts are true but thus far, intelligence agencies have been unable to deliver a clear answer.
Recent atmospheric tests for a gas that is normally given off when used fuel rods are reprocessed into plutonium, indicate that work has intensified. But they do not prove conclusively that North Korea has weapons grade plutonium to build new bombs.
The best course, says Mr Perry, is "coercive diplomacy" whereby "you have to offer something, but you have to have an iron fist behind your offer." For the moment however, Mr Bush seems unwilling to offer anything at all.Reuse content