N.Korean uranium enrichment program fades as issue
More than four years after the United States accused North Korea of a covert uranium enrichment program — triggering collapse of a nuclear deal with Pyongyang — the program has receded as an issue and some experts say Washington may have overstated or misread the intelligence.
U.S. officials no longer make a major public issue of the enrichment program, which the CIA once predicted might produce nuclear fuel by 2005 but apparently has not.
They say it will be taken care of in the later stages of six-country negotiations aimed at ending the North’s nuclear ambitions, not in this weekend’s talks in Beijing.
Yet “everything” about the last four years of the nuclear crisis — North Korea’s accelerated production of plutonium, its first test of a nuclear device in October 2006, its withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a 1994 deal with Washington — “is linked to that HEU (highly enriched uranium) claim,” said Charles Pritchard, a former U.S. negotiator with North Korea.
The North’s most advanced nuclear program, at the Yongbyon complex, produces plutonium fuel for weapons. It has produced enough material for at least six to eight bombs.
This was halted when the North, in the 1994 Clinton-era “agreed framework,” promised to freeze its nuclear program in return for $5 billion in proliferation-resistant light-water reactors and heavy fuel oil.
President George W. Bush and key aides said the accord rewarded “bad” behavior and perpetuated an illegitimate communist leadership in Pyongyang.
When North Korea’s separate uranium enrichment program was revealed in 2002, the two sides accused each other of violating past commitments and the agreed framework collapsed.
Washington long insisted that before new negotiations could occur, Pyongyang must dismantle the enrichment program.
“That the administration is now willing — in the Beijing negotiations — to provide heavy fuel oil and sanctions relief in exchange for a freeze of Yongbyon, apparently with no mention of HEU, is a stunning reversal in policy,” said a senior U.S. Senate staff aide who follows these issues.
Many advocates of a new nuclear deal are comfortable with leaving the enriched uranium program until later, saying the administration has finally focused on the most immediate threat — Pyongyang’s accelerating plutonium program.
But hard-liners doubt there will be any later negotiations and say only tough sanctions could persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear pursuits.
Officials who worked on North Korea in 2002 say the intelligence community was unanimous at the time that the North was pursuing enrichment capability.
The North Koreans admitted as much in October 2002 talks with U.S. negotiators, but later recanted.
In February 2003, then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly told Congress the program was “not so far” behind the plutonium program in producing weapons-grade material.
This followed a CIA report that Pyongyang began purchasing large quantities of centrifuge-related equipment in 2001 and was “constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational — which could be as soon as mid-decade.”
But physicist David Albright, who recently visited Pyongyang for high-level talks, told Reuters he believes the U.S. “analysis was flawed and no information has emerged supporting the claim of a large-scale North Korean centrifuge plant … There may never have been a plant under construction or even planned.”
Jonathan Pollack of the Naval War College said in an authoritative study: “Despite the administration’s dire warnings about the North’s enrichment activities, most officials recognized that the path to a meaningful enrichment capability remained a distant and very uncertain possibility.”
The current status of the HEU program is unclear.
Jon Wolfstahl of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in recent years Washington has seen “small signs” that Pyongyang is still trying to procure enrichment technology “but I’ve not heard of major sensitive items getting into North Korea.”
One senior U.S. official said, “I’m assuming they do have an enrichment program but we don’t know exactly where it is or what it’s capabilities are. A lot of it is guesswork.”