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US concern over North Korea’s covert uranium enrichment effort

nkorea_flagThe United States has raised anew the possibility that North Korea has an active programme to enrich uranium, an issue the administration had played down in recent years as it sought to persuade Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs.

With just a few days left in the Bush administration, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley made the allegation in a speech reviewing the President’s foreign policy legacy. Warning that North Korea will be “an early challenge” for the incoming Obama administration, Hadley said that there can be no progress if North Korea does not agree to a verification plan on its nuclear claims.

“This is especially true because some in the intelligence community have increasing concerns that North Korea has an ongoing covert uranium-enrichment program,” Hadley added.

In 2002, the administration accused Pyongyang of running a secret uranium program and demanded it be dismantled at once. But the accusation about the alleged uranium program backfired, sparking a series of events that ultimately led to North Korea’s first nuclear test — using another material, plutonium — in 2006. Then in 2007, intelligence analysts backed off the claim that North Korea had an active, full-scale program, saying they had only “mid-confidence” that such a program existed.

Administration officials said the new concerns were largely based on in-depth scientific analysis of enriched uranium traces that were discovered on smelted aluminum tubes and reactor documents that had been provided by North Korea in an effort to rebut allegations that it had a uranium program. The Defense Intelligence Agency in particular has pressed this case, backed by the vice president’s office and some parts of the CIA, but the Energy Department has opposed it, officials said.

David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he had been briefed recently on the findings by government officials. He said “very few particles” had actually been discovered on the documents and the tubes, and that the DIA was basing its analysis on a single particle that, through age-dating techniques, was believed to be about 3 1/2 years old.

The dating could be significant because Pakistan has acknowledged providing North Korea with a sample centrifuge kit for uranium enrichment in the early 1990s. Many analysts have speculated that the tubes and the paper had been contaminated with enriched uranium from the Pakistani equipment. The DIA argued that a particle just 3 1/2 years old could only have been processed in North Korea.

The Energy Department disputed that, saying that the evidence did not exclude the possibility that the traces came from the Pakistani equipment. DOE analysts described the single particle cited by the DIA as an “outlier” from the other particles that were found, Albright said.

Albright said it was “irresponsible and inflammatory” for Hadley to highlight the concerns of just a segment of the intelligence community. “It fans the flames of controversy and hands Obama a hot potato.”

Many North Korea experts have criticized the administration for overselling the original intelligence, handing North Korea an opportunity to restart its reactor facilities — at the time frozen under a 1994 agreement — and thus obtain the materials needed to make nuclear weapons.