By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 1, 2007
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 R. DeTrani, told Congress on Tuesday that while there is "high confidence" North Korea 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 R. Hill, the chief negotiator for disarmament talks, told a conference last week in Washington that it is unclear whether North Korea ever mastered the production techniques necessary for such a program.
If the materials North Korea bought "did not go into a highly enriched uranium program, maybe they went somewhere else," Hill said. "Fine. We can have a discussion about where they are and where they've gone."
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 at once. 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 United States led a drive to suspend shipments of fuel oil promised to Pyongyang under a 1994 accord that froze a North Korean plutonium facility. The collapse of the 1994 agreement freed North Korea to build up a stockpile of plutonium 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.
Plutonium and highly enriched uranium provide different routes to building nuclear weapons. The North Koreans were able to reprocess spent fuel rods -- which had been monitored by U.N. inspectors under the 1994 agreement -- to obtain the weapons-grade plutonium for a nuclear test last year. A uranium-enrichment program would have required Pyongyang to build a facility with thousands of uranium-spinning centrifuges to obtain the highly enriched uranium needed for a weapon. Iran's nuclear program, which the United States alleges is intended for weapons, involves enriched uranium.
When Bush took office in 2001, a number of top administration officials openly expressed grave 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 constructing a plant that would produce enough "weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year . . . as soon as mid-decade."
David Albright, a respected former U.N. inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, issued a report last week in which he likened the intelligence on North Korea's uranium facility to the discredited intelligence before the invasion of Iraq that Baghdad was building a nuclear program. "The analysis about North Korea's program also appears to be flawed," he wrote.
In the upcoming issue of the Washington Quarterly, Joel S. Wit, a former State Department official who, with Albright, recently met with North Korean officials in Pyongyang, also raises questions about the intelligence estimate.
Administration officials insist they had valid suspicions at the time about North Korean purchases -- including 150 tons of aluminum tubes from Russia in June 2002 -- 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.
Kelly told reporters at the time he had informed the North Koreans that "this was a big problem and that they needed to dismantle it right away, before we could fully engage in a whole range of things that might well be mutually beneficial."
U.S. participants at the meeting said in interviews there was little dispute at the time North Korea appeared to be admitting the program, though one said the admission was more "tonal" -- such as the North Korean official's belligerent attitude -- than would appear in the transcript of the discussion.
During the early years of the crisis, the United States took a firm stand that North Korea must first admit to the uranium facility, rejecting proposals from other nations that it was more important to freeze the plutonium facility in order to halt North Korea's production. In May 2004, DeTrani -- then with the State Department -- was dispatched to give the North Koreans a detailed, 90-minute presentation of all the materials that Pyongyang had procured overseas, including aluminum tubes, chemicals and even a centrifuge kit from a Pakistani nuclear smuggling network, a U.S. official said.
The North Koreans have consistently denied having a uranium-enrichment program, and U.S. officials say suspected procurement activities have largely ceased in the past two years for unknown reasons. Some speculate that Pyongyang found a uranium program too difficult, especially since the plutonium facility was active. Others say DeTrani's presentation spooked them and they either ended the purchases or became more discreet.
Hill has said he has raised the uranium program at every meeting with the North Koreans, but the recent deal struck with Pyongyang focuses on the plutonium program. Under the agreement, North Korea will close and "seal" its plutonium nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil.
Pyongyang must eventually disclose and dismantle its programs in order to receive significant aid and other benefits, including normalizing relations with the United States.