WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is backing away from its long-held assertions that North Korea has an active clandestine program to enrich uranium, leading some experts to believe that the original U.S. intelligence that started the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions may have been flawed.
The chief intelligence officer for North Korea, Joseph DeTrani, told Congress on Tuesday that while there is “high confidence” North Korea has acquired materials that could be used in a “production-scale” uranium program, there is only “mid-confidence” such a program exists. Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief negotiator for disarmament talks, last week told a conference in Washington that it is unclear if North Korea ever mastered the production techniques necessary for such a program.
The administration’s stance today stands in sharp contrast to the certainty expressed by top officials in 2002, when the administration accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium program – and demanded it be dismantled. President Bush told a news conference that November: “We discovered that contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they’re enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon.”
The accusation about the alleged uranium program backfired, sparking a series of events that ultimately led to North Korea’s first nuclear test – using another material, plutonium – nearly five months ago.
In 2002, the U.S. led a drive to suspend fuel-oil shipments promised to Pyongyang under a 1994 accord that froze a North Korean plutonium facility. The collapse of the agreement freed North Korea to build up a plutonium stockpile for as many as a dozen nuclear weapons. Pyongyang conducted its test with some of that plutonium – while the alleged uranium facility faded in importance.
When Bush took office in 2001, a number of top administration officials expressed doubts about the 1994 accord, which was negotiated by the Clinton administration, and they seized on the intelligence about the uranium facility to terminate the agreement. The CIA provided an unclassified estimate to Congress in November 2002 that North Korea had begun a plant that would produce enough “weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per years … as soon as mid-decade.”
Administration officials insist they had valid suspicions at the time about North Korean purchases to halt any possible cooperative talks with Pyongyang. Officials also say that a senior North Korean official admitted to the program in October 2002, when Hill’s predecessor, James Kelly, confronted North Korean officials over the U.S. intelligence findings at a meeting in Pyongyang. North Korea subsequently denied that any such admission took place.