U.S. Hedges Intel Estimate on N. Korean Uranium 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 to end its nuclear weapons program.
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U.S. Hedges Intel Estimate on N. Korean Uranium

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

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

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To new questions now about the quality of U.S. intelligence on North Korea. North Korea tested a nuclear device last October. That was a plutonium bomb. It's believed North Korea may have enough plutonium for up to a dozen nuclear weapons.

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

As NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports, the administration now appears to be toning down that claim.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: It was back in 2002 that the Bush Administration went public with the allegation about North Korea and a secret uranium-based nuclear program.

John Bolton was the State Department's point man on arms control at the time.

JOHN BOLTON: It was actually quite a moment within the intelligence community. Up until that period - late spring, early summer - there had been substantial disagreements within the intelligence community over what the evidence indicated about what North Korea was or wasn't doing in the uranium enrichment area.

LOUISE KELLY: But then, Bolton says, a lot of new intelligence came in at once. And as Bolton remembers it, broad consensus developed that North Korea was trying to build a uranium-based bomb.

On November 7th, 2002, President Bush addressed a Washington press conference.

GEORGE W: We discovered that contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're enriching uranium with the desire of developing a weapon. They admitted to this.

LOUISE KELLY: North Korea has since consistently denied it has a uranium-based weapons program. But the allegation has remained at the core of U.S. policy towards 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 explode 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, what's the evidence that North Korea ever progressed from merely aspiring to a uranium-based program to actually having one?

JOE DETRANI: Sir, we had high confidence - 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.

LOUISE KELLY: The mid-confidence level. That downshift from high confidence to mid is attracting attention. Then 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.

Selig Harrison sees the backtracking, as he calls it, as a welcome development, if late. Harrison is a North Korea expert at the Center for International Policy. Back in 2004, he wrote a controversial article in foreign affairs, arguing the Bush administration was distorting the intelligence on North Korea.

V: Department of Sweet Vindication. He believes recent developments have proven him right, and that North Korea will come to be seen as an intelligence failure even worse than pre-war Iraq.

SELIG HARRISON: It was not just a failure that some people out at the CIA got things wrong or hyped things up. There was a political agenda. There was a desire to use intelligence - hyped up and exaggerated intelligence - to reverse our North Korea policy and go to a different kind of policy, which was regime change.

LOUISE KELLY: John Bolton, the former U.S. diplomat, strongly disagrees.

BOLTON: If he's arguing that the intelligence was hyped or spun or made up, he is flatly wrong.

LOUISE KELLY: 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, quote, "Where the moderate confidence level comes in, is, is this effort ongoing and continuing today?"

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News. Washington.

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