THE Pentagon has produced detailed plans to bomb North Korea's nuclear plant at Yongbyon if the communist rogue state goes ahead with reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods that would yield it enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons within six months.
According to well-informed Canberra sources close to US thinking, the elaborate Pentagon plan also involves a US strike against North Korean heavy artillery nestled into the hills above the border with South Korea. The artillery directly threatens the giant city of Seoul, as well as about 17,000 US troops stationed just south of the Demilitarized Zone.
North Korea sent shockwaves around the world this week when a report on its government website said it was "successfully reprocessing more than 8000 spent fuel rods at the final phase".
It was accepted later that this could have been a mistranslation, the Korean version suggesting it was moving towards reprocessing but had not yet started.
Western intelligence believes no reprocessing has yet taken place.
In the Pentagon plan, the US strike would come as a response to North Korea beginning such reprocessing.
The Pentagon plan emerges from the assessment that such reprocessing could furnish North Korea with enough plutonium for six nuclear weapons by October.
There is a hawkish faction within the Pentagon that believes such a situation would be disastrous for the US, leading not only to a nuclear-armed North Korea, but also to sales by Pyongyang of nuclear weapons to its friends in the Middle East, such as Syria, Libya and Iran.
The Pentagon hawks believe the precision strikes envisaged in the plan would not lead to North Korea's initiating a general war it would be certain to lose.
The US would inform the North Koreans it was not aiming to destroy the regime of Kim Jong-il, but merely to destroy its nuclear weapons capacity.
However, the Bush administration has made no decision to accept the hawks' view.
Instead, Bush administration spokesmen have emphasized that they believe diplomacy can work with North Korea.
They have also repeatedly promised not to invade North Korea, although that language does not rule out the sort of surgical strike envisaged in the Pentagon plan.
Canberra sources close to US thinking believe it more likely that even if the regime were to proceed with its reprocessing plans, the US would reluctantly accept a nuclear-armed North Korea and bend all its efforts to preventing it from selling nuclear weapons, or the attendant technology, to outsiders.
At the same time, a diplomatic strategy of isolation and economic sanctions could be pursued, with China as the key. The US would be more likely to be able to bring such a strategy into place if North Korea were publicly producing weapons-grade plutonium at Yongbyon.
North Korea shocked Washington by admitting last October that it was pursuing a highly enriched uranium program. This would also yield it nuclear weapons material, but over a longer time frame than reprocessing at Yongbyon.
Bush administration spokesmen have said consistently in recent weeks that they believe diplomacy can bring about a solution in North Korea, but the existence of the Pentagon contingency plan demonstrates that the military option is not off the table.
The US, North Korea and China are scheduled to hold multilateral talks in Beijing later this week.
© The Australian