North Korean Uranium: Never Mind

Do you remember back in October 2002, when the Bush Administration threw a major hissy fit over the “discovery” that North Korea was processing uranium? And do you remember how this “discovery” touched off a spasm of hysteria on the Right, along with a collective denunciation of Bill Clinton’s handling of North Korea, most especially a 1994 agreement negotiated by Jimmy Carter that stopped North Korea from processing plutonium? I rant about this from time to time.

In today’s New York Times, David Sanger and William Broad write that the U.S. might have been, um, wrong about the uranium.

For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.

But now, American intelligence officials are publicly softening their position, admitting to doubts about how much progress the uranium enrichment program has actually made. The result has been new questions about the Bush administration’s decision to confront North Korea in 2002.

The 2002 hissy fit, and President Bush’s decision of November 2002 to stop oil shipments to North Korea (per the 1994 agreement), destroyed years of careful diplomatic efforts by many nations to minimize the threat posed by North Korea and its military capabilities. In December 2002, North Korea notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was re-starting its plutonium reactors, which had been idle since 1994. And last October, North Korea tested a plutonium bomb. This timeline from the Arms Control Association can walk you through some of the background. See also “Rolling Blunder” by Fred Kaplan (Washington Monthly, May 2004) and my own
Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes” archive.

So now the administration is acknowledging that the “intelligence” about uranium in 2002 was questionable and probably wrong. The Sanger & Broad article linked above suggests that this admission might “be linked to North Korea’s recent agreement to reopen its doors to international arms inspectors.” Was the concession part of the deal? Did Kim Jong Il stipulate that the Bushies admit their mistake about the uranium before he allowed weapons inspectors back in to North Korea? (Not everyone in the Bush Administration is conceding the mistake, so maybe I’m reading too much into this.)

In 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly claimed that a North Korean official, Kang Sok Ju, had admitted there was an ongoing uranium weapons program. But Kang Sok Ju has denied this all along. The recent disclosure suggests that Kelly was fibbing.

And all this nonsense is tied in to Iraq. The hysteria ginned up by the Bushies in 2002 was part of their “regime change” saber rattling. The Bushies held up North Korea as an example of how Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s wussy diplomacy had failed. A confident Condi Rice made the rounds on cable TV politics talk shows and declared that the Bush Administration knew just how to handle North Korea. Eventually, of course, the Bushies would depend on China to take the lead in negotiations and clean up the mess they had made.

In December 2002 the Bushies tried to tie North Korea to Iraq. At the request of the U.S., Spanish warships stopped the North Korean freighter So San. Its cargo of Scud missiles and unidentified chemicals were bound for Iraq, the Bushies claimed. This claim quickly fizzled, and the U.S. turned the cargo over to its rightful owner, Yemen.

Sanger and Broad continue,

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 public revelation of the intelligence agencies’ doubts, which have been brewing for some time, came almost by happenstance. In a little-noticed exchange on Tuesday at a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joseph DeTrani, a longtime intelligence official, told Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island that “we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level.” Under the intelligence agencies’ own definitions, that level “means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views” or it is not fully corroborated.

“The administration appears to have made a very costly decision that has resulted in a fourfold increase in the nuclear weapons of North Korea,” Senator Reed said in an interview on Wednesday. “If that was based in part on mixing up North Korea’s ambitions with their accomplishments, it’s important.”

Get this — part of the 2002 claim was based on aluminum tubes!

Outside experts, including David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks nuclear arms, have suggested in recent days that something similar happened in North Korea’s case. “The evidence doesn’t support the extrapolation” to the judgment that North Korea was making crucial strides in its uranium program, Mr. Albright said in an interview. “The extrapolation went too far.”

He said administration analysts were right in thinking that Dr. Khan had sold North Korea about 20 centrifuges. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, confirmed that in a memoir published last year. But, Mr. Albright said, intelligence agencies overstated whether North Korea had used those few machines as models to construct row upon row of carbon copies.

His report zeroed in on thousands of aluminum tubes that the North Koreans bought and tried to buy in the early 2000s. The C.I.A. and the Bush administration, the report said, pointed to these tubes as the “smoking gun” for construction of a large-scale North Korean plant for the enriching of uranium. It was assessments about the purpose of aluminum tubes that were at the center of the flawed Iraq intelligence.

In the North Korea case, intelligence analysts saw the tubes as ideal for centrifuges. But Mr. Albright said the relatively weak aluminum tubes were suitable only for stationary outer casings — not central rotors, which have to be very strong to keep from flying apart while spinning at tremendous speeds.

Moreover, he added, the aluminum tubes were “very easy to get and not controlled” by global export authorities because of their potentially harmless nature. So that purchase, by itself, Mr. Albright added, was “not an indicator” of clandestine use for nuclear arms.

In the January/February 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, Selig Harrison questioned the Bush Administration’s claims and wrote that it was doubtful North Korea had the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium. And about the aluminum tubes —

The limited evidence that has, in fact, been provided to South Korea and Japan does confirm that North Korea has made efforts to buy equipment that could be used to make and operate centrifuges. This equipment includes electrical-frequency converters, high-purity cobalt powder for magnetic-top bearing assemblies, and high-strength aluminum tubes.

In most of these cases, however, it is not clear whether the purchases were ever made and, if so, how much North Korea bought. For example, in April 2003, French, German, and Egyptian authorities blocked a 22-ton shipment of high-strength aluminum tubes to North Korea, the first installment of an order for 200 tons. But no evidence has been presented to establish that any of the order was delivered. Similarly, a U.S. Department of Energy intelligence study reported a North Korean “attempt” to buy two electrical-frequency converters from a Japanese firm in 1999. But the report concluded that “with only two converters, [North Korea] was probably only establishing a pilot-scale uranium enrichment capability.”

Again in 2003, Japan blocked a renewed North Korean effort to buy frequency converters, this time three. But as a careful study by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) observed, “hundreds” of such converters would be required for a production-scale enrichment facility equipped with enough centrifuges to make weapons-grade enriched uranium. The IISS study concluded that such “failures in Pyongyang’s procurement efforts suggest that North Korea may still lack key components,” especially a special grade of steel for rotors and caps and rotor bearings.

The Sanger & Brooks article says,

The strongest evidence for the original assessment was Pakistan’s sale to North Korea of upwards of 20 centrifuges, machines that spin fast to convert uranium gas into highly enriched uranium, a main fuel for atom bombs. Officials feared that the North Koreans would use those centrifuges as models to build a vast enrichment complex. But in interviews this week, experts inside and outside the government said that since then, little or no evidence of Korean procurements had emerged to back up those fears.

Not everyone in the Bush Administration is admitting the mistake.

The continuing doubts prompted the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Wednesday to declassify a portion of the most recent, one-page update circulated to top national security officials about the status of North Korea’s uranium program. The assessment, read by two senior intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in a joint interview, said the intelligence community still had “high confidence that North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability, which we assess is for a weapon.”

It added, they said, that all the government’s intelligence agencies “judge — most with moderate confidence — that this effort continues. The degree of progress towards producing enriched uranium remains unknown, however.”

In other words, while the agencies were certain of the initial purchases, confidence in the program’s overall existence appears to have dropped over the years — apparently from high to moderate.

Unfortunately, thanks to the Bushies, North Korea’s plutonium weapons capabilities went from low to high. Very high.

Also: See Josh Marshall, Hilzoy, Kevin Drum.

Update: Captain Ed still refuses to acknowledge that the 1994 Agreed Framework was aimed at stopping plutonium production. The distinction between uranium and plutonium is significant, but the Right still brushes it aside.


The North Korea link archive:

Selig Harrison, “Did North Korea Cheat?Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005

Eric Alterman, “Blaming Success, Upholding Failure

Rachel Weise, “North Korea Nuclear Timeline

Hilzoy, “Do You Feel Safer Now?

Joe Conason, “Wagging the Big Dog

Fred Kaplan, “The Slime Talk Express

Rosa Brooks, “A Good Week for the Axis of Evil

Fred Kaplan, “Rolling Blunder

The Mahablog North Korea posts (most recent first):

Bush Hides Behind China’s Skirts

Blame Everybody (But Bush)

More Bombs


Happy Talk

Bolton Lies; Righties Confused

And finally,

Blame Bush for North Korea’s Nukes