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US Now Uncertain About North Korean Uranium Program

"We still have confidence that the program is in existence -- at the mid-confidence level," Joseph DeTrani, the North Korea mission manager at the national intelligence director's office, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee. Under US intelligence definitions, that level "means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views" or it is not fully corroborated, according to The New York Times.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Mar 01, 2007
Opposition Democrats said Thursday they will press the Bush administration to explain the growing uncertainty surrounding past US allegations about a secret North Korean uranium enrichment program. The explosive US accusations in 2002 led to a political standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, but a US intelligence official said Tuesday the United States is now less certain about the uranium program's existence.

"We still have confidence that the program is in existence -- at the mid-confidence level," Joseph DeTrani, the North Korea mission manager at the national intelligence director's office, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee.

Under US intelligence definitions, that level "means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views" or it is not fully corroborated, according to The New York Times.

Democrats in Congress said the controversy harkens back to the administration's past reliance on flawed intelligence, citing the now discredited allegations that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was hiding weapons of mass destruction.

"This goes back to Iraq -- and goes back to Iran," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told AFP. "It appears that there are some who are saying that the intelligence -- even with North Korea -- has been manipulated."

Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the armed services committee, said Thursday a letter would be sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and likely to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, "with a series of questions" on the matter.

"This is a very significant development potentially," Levin said. "We want to get all the facts as we possibly can before we take any steps beyond that, so the secretary will receive a letter with our questions by Monday."

The top Republican on the armed services panel, Senator John Warner, said he also expected to sign the letter, as the issue "should be clarified."

The US accusations in 2002 that the North was running a secret uranium program, in addition to its declared plutonium-based nuclear operation, led to the collapse of a 1994 denuclearization deal with the Stalinist regime.

North Korea, which last month agreed to scrap its nuclear program in a landmark deal, has denied having a covert uranium enrichment program.

The New York Times said two unnamed US administration officials suggested that if Washington had harbored the same doubts when it leveled the accusation in 2002 as it does now, the negotiating strategy with North Korea might have been different.

The tit-for-tat actions that led to Pyongyang's atomic bomb test in October could conceivably have been avoided, the Times said, citing the officials.

"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," an unidentified senior administration official was quoted as saying in the Times.

The White House referred questions to the intelligence community.

"We've said for a long time, North Korea is an opaque regime," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

"I'm sure the intelligence community continually tried to assess and reassess and look at the information that they have," she said.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters Thursday that North Korea admitted in 2002 to having a highly-enriched uranium program at the time, before then denying its existence.

He said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confirmed in his memoir that the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had sold North Korea equipment for the program.

Pressed on whether Pyongyang just purchased the equipment but never really got an enrichment program running, McCormack also referred questions to the intelligence agencies for an assessment of "where it stands right now."

North Korea agreed at six-nation talks in Beijing last month to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic benefits.

Under the multi-phase February 13 agreement worked out at the talks involving China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States, North Korea had 60 days to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility, invite back international nuclear inspectors and declare all its nuclear programs.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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