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U.S. claims will be tested in N. Korea

U.N. inspections could disprove assertions about Pyongyang's nuclear program.

March 04, 2007|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — North Korea's unexpected promise last month to open its nuclear weapons arsenals and production facilities to U.N. inspectors provided a welcome foreign policy success for the White House, but may prove embarrassing as well.

At stake is whether the Bush administration overstated a purported secret North Korean program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear bombs in 2002. President Bush's charges that autumn about the alleged program helped derail an accord intended to freeze the weapons effort before it could produce fissile material for a bomb.

North Korea tossed out United Nations nuclear inspectors, built up a stockpile of plutonium and finally tested a small nuclear device last October, using plutonium rather than enriched uranium as fuel.

Under last month's agreement among North Korea, the U.S. and four other countries, the U.N.'s chief nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, has scheduled a three-day visit to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, beginning March 13 to arrange the inspectors' return. The inspectors could validate the U.S. suspicions, or could prove them unfounded.

Questions about the uranium enrichment effort emerged last week when the chief U.S. intelligence officer for North Korea, Joseph R. DeTrani, appeared to suggest during a congressional hearing that intelligence authorities had backtracked from their original classified assessments.

Afterward, senior intelligence officials argued that their assessments had not changed.

They said the evidence was clear that in mid-2002, North Korea obtained uranium-spinning centrifuges and other tools and components necessary for an illicit enrichment program. However, they said, the evidence has always appeared far less conclusive as to whether Pyongyang procured enough equipment to start industrial-scale enrichment of uranium, whether it installed and operated any of the machinery or whether it has sought additional supplies.

The intelligence officials and some others spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing internal interpretations of intelligence assessments.

John D. Negroponte, deputy secretary of State, said Friday that inspections should resolve the questions. The recent accord calls for a "full and complete" accounting of North Korea's nuclear programs, including "its uranium enrichment activities," he told reporters in Tokyo.

Negroponte, the former director of national intelligence, said the judgment of the intelligence community "is that they are very confident that North Korea had an enrichment program in the past, and they are moderately confident that this program still continues."

A U.S. intelligence official in Washington said the apparent shift in language is "not a change in what the confidence level was. It's not an effort to look back at what we thought of the program. It's an effort to look at where it is in the present."

Another U.S. intelligence official said the question of what North Korea did with its centrifuges, and how far or how quickly it progressed in uranium enrichment, "was always presented as murky and with caveats. Nothing has changed. We are absolutely not backtracking or changing the judgment."

But a U.S. diplomat with access to the intelligence said the administration was "trying to walk back some of the rhetoric."

"The problem is they've opened up a can of worms," the diplomat said. "Was this another case of faulty intelligence, like Iraq? Or is it possible they cooked the books?"

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) sought clarification from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, asking them in a letter whether any intelligence assessments on North Korea's programs had changed since 2002. "If so, when did it change, why did it change and how did it change?" he wrote.

The Senate Intelligence Committee also is "taking steps to understand the evolution" of the assessments on North Korea since 2002, an aide said.

Few doubts appeared in White House statements and public CIA reports on the enrichment program in 2002.

At a news conference in November that year, President Bush said: "We discovered that, contrary to an agreement they had with the United States, they're enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon."

In an unclassified estimate for Congress that month, the CIA wrote that North Korea "is 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."

Robert Gallucci, who was the chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea in the mid-1990s, called the mid-decade conjecture a "worst-case scenario."

"It could also be 10 to 20 years," he said last week. "The estimates were a wild guess."

David Albright, an arms expert who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit group that tracks nuclear issues and opposes arms proliferation, said the U.S. assessments of North Korea's uranium enrichment effort "appear to be flawed." He compared them to prewar misjudgments on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

"I think there were deliberate attempts to hype all this," Albright said. "Now that the administration has got a deal with North Korea, they're on the other side. They don't want to slit their own throats with things they said back in 2002."

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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