WASHINGTON – A nuclear test by North Korea could encourage Japan, Taiwan and possibly South Korea to initiate their own nuclear programs in the already unsettled region, according to a report by Republican staff on the House Intelligence Committee.
The 36-page document circulated on Tuesday says U.S. spy agencies must do more to fill crucial intelligence gaps on the closed communist regime. It argues that North Korea's threatened nuclear test would drive relations with its Asian neighbors to "a new low."
"Most importantly, a North Korean nuclear test could have serious implications for regional security as it might spur Japan, Taiwan and possibly South Korea to begin their own nuclear weapons programs," the report concludes.
The report says the regime's existing program "has seriously undermined its relations within the region and beyond by destabilizing East Asia."
In recent months, senior U.S. intelligence officials have provided little detail publicly about the latest thinking on North Korea, so the report provides an unusual assessment of subjects from the regime's counterfeiting to its military spending.
Republicans highlighted the fact that the document was reviewed by National Intelligence Director John Negroponte's top aide on North Korea, who told the committee it was "objective, not biased and not excessively harsh," according to an attached memo.
Yet Negroponte spokesman Chad Kolton said officials had reviewed a draft copy of the report and had not yet read the final version to know if their suggested changes were incorporated.
It comes in a series of committee reports on Iran and other hot subjects that have come under fire by critics who find errors and political undertones. This one appeared to be no different.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, called at least one section of the report "nonsense." It describes North Korea's uranium enrichment program as older than Iran's and argues it's reasonable to assume that North Korea has as many centrifuges as Iran.
Tehran has said publicly it hopes to have 3,000 centrifuges enriching uranium by next year, which could theoretically produce two or more weapons each year.
Albright said North Korea's uranium program is not well understood, but he called it "misleading and dishonest" to date the North Korean centrifuge program back to 1985, when the Iranians are known to have started theirs.
Iran, he noted, also got significantly more help than North Korea from the Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who signed the report as chairman of the intelligence policy subcommittee, said the committee took almost all the changes suggested by the intelligence officials. He said the section Albright highlights was not one that raised questions and noted the report was assembled "painstakingly" to give the public more information.
The Democrats didn't participate in the report's drafting, which is part of the Republicans' "scare America plan," said Patrick Eddington, a spokesman for New Jersey Rep. Rush Holt, the policy subcommittee's top Democrat.
The findings on the major part of North Korea's nuclear program — its plutonium enrichment — are in line with the consensus of experts.
The report says Pyongyang is believed to have at least one or two nuclear weapons from its plutonium program, and estimates it could have five more if it has reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods. With additional steps, North Korea could produce many more.
The report lays out the range of issues, including North Korea's efforts to counterfeit U.S. currency, the population's poverty and the regime's massive defense spending.
The Republican staff noted the size of the North Korean military — 1.2 million men — but said the conventional threat from North Korea has declined because of poor economic conditions and the slow pace of modernization.
The concern, the report says, is that the North Korean leadership could miscalculate "by instigating a minor provocation that escalates into a major incident."
It also calls North Korea's intelligence service "aggressive and ruthless," and says it "almost certainly" has a heavy contingent of intelligence officers working at the United Nations in New York.
The U.S. intelligence community has spy satellites and other eavesdropping equipment aimed at North Korea, and the report calls on the agencies to do more to fill the gaps so analysts can make judgments "with confidence" about the murky regime.
That need will be especially acute, the report says, if the U.S. needs to monitor any potential agreements with North Korea to curb its nuclear program.
Such an agreement seemed far off on Tuesday, given North Korea's threats to test a weapon. Eyes now are on what U.S. intelligence can do to confirm — and predict — such a test, which is expected to be underground.
A host of U.S. agencies are believed to be studying the issue, looking for clues such as trucks and other activity around the suspected test site.
Within the U.S. military, the organization primarily responsible for reporting on nuclear events is the Air Force Technical Applications Center, headquartered at Florida's Patrick Air Force Base. It operates a worldwide network of nuclear event detection sensors, which includes satellites and a ground-based seismic network.