Monday-Morning Quarterbacking on North Korean HEU

In 2002, the US discovered evidence that North Korea bought at least 20 uranium centrifuges from Pakistan, through the AQ Khan network, even though Pyonyang had agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons. The US accused North Korea of reneging on the Agreed Framework, as it determined that the Kim regime would use the purchases to develop their own program for highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Kim’s government rejected the charges, and the US suspended oil shipments to the energy-poor North. Less than a year later, Pyongyang admitted that they have been working on plutonium-based weapons for years and refused to negotiate an end to that program, a decision that resulted in last year’s nuclear test and an arsenal estimated at between six to fifteen nuclear weapons.
Now, new intelligence shows that the Kim regime may not have done much with the centrifuges they bought from Pakistan, and the New York Times and Senate Democrats are outraged over what they see as another intelligence failure:

For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.
But now, American intelligence officials are publicly softening their position, admitting to doubts about how much progress the uranium enrichment program has actually made. The result has been new questions about the Bush administration’s decision to confront North Korea in 2002.
“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,” a senior administration official said this week. …
“The administration appears to have made a very costly decision that has resulted in a fourfold increase in the nuclear weapons of North Korea,” Senator [Jack] Reed said in an interview on Wednesday. “If that was based in part on mixing up North Korea’s ambitions with their accomplishments, it’s important.”

Context remains important here, which both Reed and the Times fail to consider. Intelligence is not an exact science, and conclusions have to be drawn on spotty evidence at times. The United States cannot allow itself the luxury of academic analysis paralysis; we have to prepare to meet danger before it becomes an unassailable fact, and that is especially true with nuclear proliferation.
No one disputes the fact that North Korea clandestinely bought 20 uranium centrifuges from Pakistan. That broke their part of the Agreed Framework, a violation that the US could not just ignore. After all, there are no other uses for uranium centrifuges than to enrich uranium, a process which the Kim regime supposedly had eschewed as part of the 1994 treaty. It seems a fairly reasonable conclusion that Kim didn’t spend his hard currency on the centrifuges just to put them in a museum, but to enrich uranium.
When confronted on this, Kim refused to acknowledge it. That left the US a couple of choices. One, we could continue to operate our side of the agreement and supply them with oil while we attempted to get them to acknowledge that they were pursuing HEU. The other was to cut them off and force them back to the table.
The Times gets another point dreadfully wrong. The way that David Sanger and William Broad tell the story, Kim didn’t start developing plutonium weapons until after we stopped shipping oil after the centrifuge purchase. That’s ludicrous. North Korea doesn’t have the expertise to develop plutonium weapons in less than four years. They had been working on the plutonium program ever since the Agreed Framework in 1994 left a huge hole where verification should have been. They had been cheating all along, and apparently wanted to see if they could add HEU to the plutonium program, and got caught.
Apparently no one has considered the possibility that the reason Kim doesn’t have an HEU program is because the US publicly called them out on their efforts. Had we jollied them along in 2002, they may have been farther along than Iran in building centrifuges. In any case, this outrage over a reasonable and prudent policy decision based on the intelligence and evidence in hand in 2002 is nothing more than another non-event, twisted for partisan ends.