North Korea argues it had no plan to enrich uranium for weapons

Published 12 November 2007

Another potential embarrassment for U.S. intelligence: North Korea says it will prove that it never had the plans or the means to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons

As it goes about dismantling its nuclear weapon capabilities, North Korea is also providing evidence to the United States to prove it never intended to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler writes that the North Korean government has granted U.S. experts access to equipment and documents to make its case, in preparation for declaring the extent of its nuclear activities before the end of the year. North Korean officials hope the United States will simultaneously lift sanctions against Pyongyang as the declaration is made. If North Korea successfully demonstrates that U.S. charges about the uranium-enrichment program are wrong, it will be yet another blow to U.S. intelligence and the Bush administration’s credibility. The administration’s claims about a large-scale uranium program in North Korea led to the collapse of the 1994 agreement which had frozen a North Korean reactor which was used to produce another bomb-making material — plutonium. The collapse of the 1994 agreement allowed North Korea to use the plutonium it had produced before 1994 to produce one or more nuclear bombs, and test one of them last year (experts estimate that the pre-1994 plutonium stockpile would be sufficient to produce eight to ten Hiroshima-size bombs).

U.S. intelligence first concluded in July 2002 that North Korea had embarked on a large-scale program to produce highly enriched uranium for use in weapons, saying it was constructing a facility that would be fully operational by 2005. After the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of violating a 1994 agreement, North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors from the country, disabled IAEA monitoring cameras in its nuclear storage site, and restarted its plutonium reactor, allowing it to stockpile its weapons-grade material. The administration this year began to back off its earlier assertions that North Korea has an active program to enrich uranium. David Albright, a former U.N. inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), said in a report this year that there is “ample evidence” that North Korea was trying to put together a small-scale research program involving a few dozen centrifuges but that claims of a large-scale effort were flawed. Albright told the Washington Post that the tubes acquired by North Korea needed to be cut in half and shaped in order to be used as the outer casings of centrifuges. If Pyongyang proves that the tubes were untouched, he said, it could “shatter the argument” that they were meant for a uranium program. Albright said, however, that it is difficult to see how North Korea could explain away a set of centrifuges that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said a Pakistani nuclear-smuggling network provided to Pyongyang. “I think the North Koreans are making a big mistake” if they deny they had any interest in uranium enrichment, he said. “They are going to create a lot of trouble if they stick to this.”