N. Korea's Nuclear Plans Were No Secret

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 1, 2003

In November 2001, when the Bush administration was absorbed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, intelligence analysts at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory completed a highly classified report and sent it to Washington. The report concluded that North Korea had begun construction of a plant to enrich uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons, according to administration and congressional sources.

The findings meant that North Korea was secretly circumventing a 1994 agreement with the United States in which it promised to freeze a nuclear weapons program. Under that deal, the North stopped producing plutonium.

Now, however, there was evidence that the North was embarking on a hidden quest for nuclear weapons down another path, using enriched uranium.

Although the report was hand-delivered to senior Bush administration officials, "no one focused on it because of 9/11," according to an official at Livermore, one of the nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories. An informed member of Congress offered the same conclusion.

The findings of the Livermore report were confirmed in a June 2002 National Intelligence Estimate, a major assessment by the CIA and all other intelligence agencies. These reports are part of a complex and hidden trail of intelligence about the North Korean effort that has raised questions about why the Bush administration waited until early October 2002 to confront officials in the capital, Pyongyang, with the intelligence -- and to go public several weeks later -- when details had been accumulating for more than two years.

The North Korean drive to enrich uranium came as the Bush administration was trying to build support for military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on grounds he was hiding a program of weapons of mass destruction and would be more dangerous if he obtained nuclear weapons. Some critics say the Bush administration kept secret the most worrisome intelligence about a North Korean nuclear plant out of concern that public disclosure would undermine the campaign against Iraq, or interfere with the pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his network. Top administration officials have repeatedly denied that they suppressed the intelligence for political reasons.

Today, the administration faces new challenges as satellite data reportedly show North Korea moving fuel rods from a reactor site that was mothballed under the 1994 agreement. The site contains 8,000 such rods which, if reprocessed, could yield enough plutonium for about five bombs in approximately one month, according to Daniel A. Pinkston, senior research associate and Korea specialist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

Moving the rods away from the storage site could make it much harder for outsiders to monitor whether North Korea was using them to build a bomb. Since 1994, the rods had been in storage under international monitoring, but recently the inspectors from the U.N.-chartered International Atomic Energy Agency were expelled from the country.

CIA analysts said they now believe North Korea is moving full speed toward building a weapon with plutonium. U.S. intelligence has never included firm evidence that North Korea actually possesses a bomb, although there has been speculation that it had one or more weapons. North Korea also has missiles that could be used to deliver a weapon, including between 500 and 600 missiles modified from the Soviet-built Scud, with relatively short ranges of 150 to 300 miles. Also, in 1993 North Korea tested a missile with an 800-mile range, which could reach Japan, and in 1998 launched a three-stage missile over Japan. One stage flew an estimated 3,450 miles before breaking up in the Pacific Ocean. The following year, North Korea announced a moratorium on missile tests, but recently threatened to resume them.

The history of the intelligence about North Korea's drive to enrich uranium underscores how the effort to stop weapons proliferation is made more complex by other foreign policy goals.

For example, the Livermore report included the disclosure that Pakistani scientists were the source of the plans showing the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, how uranium is enriched, the sources said.

Just weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, joined the United States in the fight against bin Laden and the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan. The United States, in return, dropped sanctions imposed on Pakistan for pursuing a nuclear program. According to one senior administration official, it was at this point that Musharraf's government provided some of the new intelligence about North Korea, and the Pakistani president took steps to close down the channel that had delivered the nuclear know-how to Pyongyang. Pakistan's leadership "wanted to show they were cooperating," said one senior official who was close to the situation.


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity