U.S. Hedges Intel Estimate on N. Korean Uranium

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The U.S. backs away from confident statements that North Korea is making progress toward enriching uranium. That assertion by the Bush Administration in 2002 helped to derail negotiations on ending the North's nuclear weapons program.

U.S. officials now says they have only "mid-level confidence" that the program exists.

North Korea tested a nuclear device last October, a plutonium bomb. It's believed that North Korea may have enough plutonium for up to a dozen nuclear weapons.

But back in 2002, the Bush administration has accused North Korea of pursuing a second, separate track — using highly enriched uranium to build nuclear weapons.

North Korea has consistently denied it has a uranium-enrichment program.

But the allegation has remained at the core of U.S. policy toward North Korea. Negotiations collapsed. And the four years since have seen North Korea kick out international inspectors, withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and exploded a plutonium bomb.

Now, with a new deal on the table with North Korea, the Bush administration appears to be softening its rhetoric. At a Senate hearing this week, Joe DeTrani, the top U.S. Intelligence official on North Korea, was asked, about the evidence that North Korea ever progressed from merely aspiring to a uranium-based program, to actually having one.

"Sir, we had high confidence," DeTrani, said. "The assessment was with high confidence that, indeed, they were making acquisitions necessary for, if you will, a production-scale program. And we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid- confidence level, yes, sir."

The "mid-confidence" level. That downshift from "high confidence" to "mid", is attracting attention. Some have accused the White House of over-estimating North Korea's abilities in order to justify its policies — a charge administration officials reject.

Yesterday, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs committee, Christopher Hill also indicated uncertainty over the state of Pyongyang's uranium program. Hill is the lead U.S. negotiator with North Korea.

A current senior intelligence official tells NPR, "We continue to assess with high confidence that North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability, which we assess is for weapons." The official asked not to be identified by name, while discussing sensitive intelligence. He added, "Where the 'moderate' confidence level comes in, is: Is this effort ongoing and continuing today?"

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