U.S. Concedes Uncertainty on North Korean Uranium Effort
WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 — Last October, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear device, the fruition of decades of work to make a weapon out of plutonium.
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 question now is whether we would be in the position of having to get the North Koreans to give up a sizable arsenal if this had been handled differently,” a senior administration official said this week.
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.