The belief that North Korea has an active and "clandestine" uranium enrichment program has come under question after statements this week from US officials. The Washington Post reports that the US is now backing away from this position, which has led "experts to believe that the original US 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 Post reports that these new positions contrast sharply with the Bush administration's statements in 2002 when top administration officials expressed "with certainty" that North Korea was running a uranium enrichment program.
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.
Dan Froomkin, who writes the Post's White House Watch blog, says this new information describes "a horribly familiar cycle."
It now appears that the White House in 2002 used dubious claims of North Korean uranium enrichment as an excuse to break a Clinton-brokered deal, thereby allowing North Korea's poisonous dictator to build up a stockpile of plutonium, which in turn led to the building of as many as a dozen nuclear weapons, one of which he exploded in a nuclear test last year.
And consider the incredible irony of the timing.
News about how unfounded those uranium-enrichment claims were may be emerging now because North Korea's renewed willingness to admit international arms inspectors threatens to expose to public view all the evidence to the contrary.
The New York Times reports that this new information has raised concerns about how the Bush administration handled the entire relationship with North Korea.
"The question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently," a senior administration official said this week.
The disclosure underscores broader questions about the ability of intelligence agencies to discern the precise status of foreign weapons programs. The original assessment about North Korea came during the same period that the administration was building its case about Iraq's unconventional weapons programs, which turned out to be based on flawed intelligence. And the new North Korea assessment comes amid debate over intelligence about Iran's weapons.
The Times also reports that intelligence officials said they still had "high confidence" North Korea had pursued a uranium enrichment capability. But what is now under question is whether or not the country used purchases from countries like Pakistan to actually create a uranium processing capability. Recent statements by senior administration officials, such as those mentioned above, would indicate a change in position. Intelligence official Joseph DeTrani, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week said the belief such a program exists is at the "mid-confidence level."
The Associated Press writes this difference in language is key.
The "mid-confidence" terminology means that analysts have differing views or credible information exists but has not been fully corroborated. That's a notable departure from the previous US view of "high confidence" that the North was working on such activities.
An editorial in the Los Angeles Times says it's time for the Bush administration to "come clean" on its dealings with North Korea in 2002, especially considering similar charges the administration leveled recently against Iran.
Cynics may even wonder whether the administration, having opted for a deal with North Korea, may be downplaying for political purposes the significance of the very intelligence it once cited as proof of Pyongyang's malevolence. Some might even ask why it matters what the administration knew then – and with what degree of certainty – given that North Korea has already tested a plutonium bomb. It's because the US has declared itself the world's nuclear watchdog, refusing to be bound by the decisions of the International Atomic Energy Agency or the UN Security Council.
Yet for the second time, serious questions have been raised about the credibility of US assessments of the potential nuclear threat posed by an enemy nation. Are these charges justified? Given the US need to enlist other nations to adopt sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions and deal with other proliferation challenges, that's a question that demands an answer.