The R.O.K. Foreign Ministry has supported the U.S. claim. Elsewhere, South Korean skepticism is widespread. In Washington, I have heard these doubts expressed by a number of younger South Korean scholars and experts. They have related that R.O.K. Government officials tell them that they have seen “no convincing evidence” that North Korea has a secret uranium enrichment program.
There seems to be several reasons for the widespread South Korean skepticism. Strong supporters of South Korea’s conciliation policy toward North Korea are inclined to believe Pyongyang’s denials of a uranium enrichment program. U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq bring forth doubts about the accuracy of U.S. intelligence findings on this issue. The criticism that Bush Administration officials exaggerated the threat from Iraq contributes to a deep suspicion among South Koreans that the Bush Administration fabricated the claim as part of its strategy to isolate North Korea and bring about “regime change”: a suspicion that North Korean propaganda has exploited effectively.
The issue of Iraq intelligence and how the Bush Administration used it has created a particular credibility problem for the Administration in convincing other governments and informed opinion of the validity of the U.S. claim. But any objective judgment of the U.S. claim should take into account the fact that the evidence and assessments of a secret North Korean uranium enrichment go well beyond the Bush Administration.
U.S. intelligence information on the uranium enrichment program and Pakistan’s involvement in it arose in the Clinton Administration after 1998. Clinton Administration officials were convinced by 2000 that North Korea had such a program. In their recent book, Going Critical: the First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, former Clinton Administration officials, Joel Witt, Daniel Poneman, and Robert Gallucci (who negotiated the 1994 North Korean-U.S. Agreed Framework) said this: “By the late 1990s, the U.S. government observed the North Korean pursuit of a significant uranium-enrichment program and, as noted earlier, was moving to deal with this and other issues (such as ballistic missiles) when time ran out on the Clinton administration.”
The U.S. Department of Energy produced an assessment of the North Korean program in early 1999. The Energy Department report described North Korean attempts to purchase uranium enrichment technology in Japan and concluded (according to press accounts) that North Korea “is in the early stages of a uranium enrichment capability” and “Pakistan may well have lent some level of assistance on uranium enrichment.” A subsequent C.I.A. report noted North Korean attempts in 1999 to procure nuclear technology overseas; and the Washington Post (February 1, 2003) quoted a “former senior official in the Clinton Administration” that the classified section of the report asserted that the procurements indicated an “experimental or research and development” program of uranium enrichment. Karl Inderfurth, another top Clinton Administration official, later disclosed that President Clinton raised on three occasions with Pakistani leaders between 1998 and 2000 the U.S. assessment that Pakistan was supplying North Korea with uranium enrichment components and technology. In his certification statement to Congress regarding the Agreed Framework on February 24, 2000, President Clinton inserted a statement that he would not certify that “North Korea is not seeking to develop or acquire the capability to enrich uranium.”
There are also assessments from non-U.S. sources simultaneous with or earlier than those of the Clinton Administration. Of special importance are the Russian intelligence assessments of the 1993. Reports in two Japanese journals and the Russian newspaper, Izvestia, quoted from two Russian intelligence documents, an October 1993 Defense Ministry report entitled “The Russian Federation’s Military Policy in the Asia and Pacific Region Under the New Military-Political Conditions” and a 1993 report of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service on “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the World.” Both Russian assessments asserted that North Korea had an active uranium enrichment program. The press reports quoted Russian intelligence officials that a key source of this information was the ex-Soviet nuclear scientists who were working in North Korea. Today, the Russian assessments correspond with information reportedly from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan in March 2004 that Pakistani-North Korean cooperation on uranium enrichment began around 1991.
High level North Korean defectors have testified that they knew of a secret uranium program in the 1990s. Hwang Jang-yop stated in July 2003 that he was told of the program in 1996 by Jon Byung-ho, a top North Korean national security official. Finally, South Korean government officials were suspicious long before President Bush took office. One such Foreign Affairs-Trade Ministry official was cited by The Korea Times of July 20, 1999 as describing “some clues” that North Korea and Pakistan were engaging in “a technological swap” of Pakistani nuclear technology for North Korean missile technology.
To conclude: it is invalid to surmise a “conspiracy theory” that the Bush Administration fabricated the U.S. claim. The Bush Administration would strengthen the U.S. claim if it made public some of its intelligence information, especially commercial information on North Korean procurement of uranium enrichment components from other countries. Nevertheless, it is crucial to the prospects of the six party talks for South Koreans, Chinese, and Russians to open their minds in assessing the credibility of the U.S. claim.