[Overseas view]North must come clean on uranium programRecently there have been persistent rumors in the press and even in the United States and South Korean governments that the intelligence about North Korea’s highly enriched uranium program was wrong or exaggerated. In recent opinion pieces in another newspaper, Professor Moon Chung-In compared the highly enriched uranium intelligence to the failure of intelligence assessments on Iraq; Selig Harrison wrote in the Financial Times that the highly enriched uranium problem was a myth.
It is almost as if there is wishful thinking that after the first 60-day period of the Feb. 13 agreement, the next big obstacle can be avoided by giving North Korea a pass on the issue.
This is truly wishful thinking, however. The reality is that the uranium program remains the major cause of the current North Korean nuclear crisis because it violated (and continues to violate) the North-South Denuclearization Accord, the Agreed Framework and all of North Korea’s other commitments to denuclearize.
Moreover, highly enriched uranium is potentially far more dangerous in the long term because it can generate many more nuclear weapons than the plutonium program and do so underground, where it is difficult to detect or stop.
Moreover, there is an enormous technical difference between a highly enriched uranium program and a simple “enriched” uranium program, which seems far more innocent and experimental.
How did the rumors and spin start to downgrade the highly enriched uranium problem? There is no question that the failure of the United States, British, French, Israeli and numerous other intelligence services on the question of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction did enormous damage to the credibility of any intelligence assessment regarding North Korea, which is even more closed than Iraq was.
In addition, there has been a misunderstanding or even misuse of the testimony of the director of national intelligence’s mission manager for North Korea, Joseph DeTrani. DeTrani is a skilled intelligence professional. When he was asked in open Senate testimony to characterize the highly enriched uranium program, he said, “We have high confidence that, indeed, they [North Korea] were making acquisitions necessary for, if you will, a production scale program. And we still have confidence that the program is in existence, at a mid-confidence level.”
Many people have seized on DeTrani’s “high confidence” in 2002 and “medium confidence” today to suggest that the U.S. intelligence community is somehow downgrading its initial assessment. However, that is not the case. As DeTrani explained to the Senate, in 2002 the United States had high confidence that North Korea was purchasing virtually all of the highly specialized equipment needed to make the specific highly enriched uranium P-1 and P-2 centrifuge plants stolen by Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan and this information was confirmed in multiple ways. Unlike the intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, there were no dissenting voices in the U.S. intelligence community because the evidence was so overwhelming.
What was not known was where the program was physically located and how far North Korea had gone toward building an actual plant. Once the U.S. delegation confronted North Korean officials in October 2002 with the existence of the program, it undoubtedly became harder to get information about it (not surprisingly).
So absolutely nothing in DeTrani’s testimony suggests the U.S. has lost confidence in the initial conclusion that North Korea was actively developing a specific highly enriched uranium facility. Hence the “high confidence” on their intentions and the “medium confidence” about what is going on today. Naive people may believe North Korea subsequently abandoned highly enriched uranium and did not tell us, but that would be very naive indeed.
The bottom line remains the same, however. As DeTrani said to the Senate and Secretary Condoleezza Rice and Christopher Hill [at the State Department] have confirmed, the North Koreans need to address the issue.
The third issue some have used to cast doubt on the existence of North Korea’s highly enriched uranium program is the argument that the U.S. delegation to Pyongyang in October 2002 did not understand Kang Sok-joo’s statement on the issue. I was on that delegation and our team included five Korean speakers, three of whom were perfectly bilingual.
Since leaving the government the various participants in that meeting have had different views of North Korea policy ― some critical of the administration and some supportive ― but all have agreed that Kang Sok-joo’s long speech to former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly was premised entirely on an acknowledgment of the program, even though Kang did not reveal any specifics.
The Feb. 13 agreement is a chance to move forward toward denuclearization and a permanent peace mechanism, but if we pretend that some of the core issues like highly enriched uranium are not real, we only risk encouraging Pyongyang to be obstructionist, which will ultimately cause the agreement to collapse.
Now is the time to be unified and crystal-clear that the North must provide a full declaration that accounts for what we know with high confidence about their harvesting of plutonium and their aggressive procurement of material and equipment.
*The writer is a former senior director for Asian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council.
by Michael Green