FOR THOSE WITH ACCESS TO IT, THE ENVIRONS OF Yongbyon, home to North Korea's main nuclear complex, can be a lovely place to visit. The country's founder, Kim Il Sung, so adored the region's azaleas and autumn foliage that he built a vacation home there, on a mountain overlooking the clear blue waters of the river near Yongbyon. Late last month Yongbyon was the site of a party of sorts, thrown by 100 North Korean officials and attended by the two U.N. weapons inspectors assigned to monitor the complex for signs that North Korea is trying to restart its nuclear-weapons program. In full view of the inspectors, the North Korean officials cut dozens of seals from a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor--reopening it for the first time in nearly a decade--and covered over U.N. surveillance cameras fixed to the walls of the plant. When they finished the task, the hosts celebrated with a round of beers.
They were just getting started. The next day, North Korean scientists began removing seals and surveillance cameras from a cooling pond where spent fuel rods had been lying untouched. They reopened a nearby facility designed to extract plutonium, which can be used to fashion nuclear bombs, from the spent fuel. Appearing at the door of the Yongbyon guesthouse accommodating the two U.N. inspectors, a smiling North Korean official read aloud a letter informing them it was time to leave--immediately. The official volunteered that there were in fact two seats on the next Air Koryo flight from Pyongyang to Beijing. The inspectors left with 14 discs of surveillance-video footage and 200 discarded seals.
Thus did the North Korean regime escalate a showdown that began last October, when it confirmed U.S. intelligence reports that it was illegally building a new uranium-enrichment factory--another pathway to the Bomb. The expulsion of the inspectors was the clearest sign yet that Pyongyang is intent on pushing the stand-off to the brink. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, lamented that the world now has "no clue" what Pyongyang might try to develop in coming months. In fact, it does have a clue: North Korea, which the CIA believes already has enough fissile material for one or two bombs, is poised to extract enough plutonium from the spent fuel to produce four to eight more within a matter of months. It is unknown whether North Korea has ever actually constructed a nuclear weapon. But given the relative simplicity of making a crude device, some U.S. analysts suspect that it has a bomb, albeit an untested one.
The Bush Administration has done its best to counsel the world not to panic, making daily appeals to give diplomacy a chance. Secretary of State Colin Powell refused even to call the situation a "crisis." But with each new North Korean gambit, that official insouciance sounds more off-key. Seemingly overnight, the U.S. begins the New Year eyeball to eyeball with a paranoid, ruthless regime hell-bent on obtaining nuclear weapons to complement an army the Pentagon rates among the most formidable in the world. And so, despite their stoic miens, White House officials are grasping for some way to yank North Korea back from the precipice and return everyone's focus to that other spoke in the axis of evil, Iraq. "Is it a distraction?" says a White House official. "Yes. It's a serious issue. Does it change what we're doing on Iraq? No."