Earlier this month, Barack Obama told an audience in the Czech Republic that he will work towards a world free of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, the crackpot dictatorship of North Korea vowed to restart a nuclear program it had recently halted, surely with the intention of building more bombs capable of incinerating thousands of people in a moment. The bellicose announcement comes in response to a United Nations condemnation of North Korea’s recent missile test--a technical flop that refocused world attention on a regime led by someone who, as an Asia expert once explained to me, acts like a child in a high chair, screaming and flinging food around the kitchen in a spastic bid for attention.
Of course, this child--the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il--happens to have several nuclear bombs in his toy box. But the real worry is not that he will create a mushroom cloud of out pique; few people think Kim would court suicide that way. The bigger cause for alarm is that Kim might sell off nuclear plans, materials, or perhaps even weapons to the highest bidder. In 2007 North Korea was exposed for having helped Syria build a nuclear reactor demolished in a pre-emptive Israeli strike. Now comes a new report from the Nikkei news service, citing Western intelligence officials, that North Korea may have shipped “several dozen tons of enriched uranium” to Iran this winter.
The key word here is “uranium.” North Korea does not publicly acknowledge that it monkeys around with uranium--only plutonium. (Both substances will do for bomb-making; plutonium is more potent but also harder to detonate.) The plutonium program is what the Bush administration convinced Kim to halt last year--and which the petulant dictator is now threatening to re-start. But the big question lingering over Obama’s future dealings with the Hermit Kingdom is whether there is another nuclear program underway in the North--a secret uranium operation. If so, the North may even now be churning out more and more fissile material that would be most attractive to nuclear aspirants like Iran, or even Osama bin Laden.
The problem is that the U.S. intelligence community isn’t quite sure whether or not this secret program actually exists. In an ominous echo of the pre-war debate over Iraq intelligence, U.S. officials have studied the credibility of sources, parsed confusing regime statements, and even argued about the purpose of imported aluminum tubes. Ultimately, Barack Obama must make the call: Is North Korea even more dangerous than we think? And if so, what should the U.S. do about it?
Here’s the easy part, which no one disputes: For more than 20 years, a North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon has churned out weapons-grade plutonium. Sometime during the Bush presidency, that plutonium was fashioned into several nuclear bombs. The Bush team responded with a tough posture towards the North. But late in his presidency, after years of zero progress (quite the opposite--in 2006 the North conducted a nuclear test) and against the advice of Dick Cheney and other like-minded hawks who saw nuclear extortion at play, George Bush allowed for direct negotiations with the North Koreans. Those talks, spearheaded until this year by State Department envoy Christopher Hill (now Obama’s nominee to be Iraq ambassador), resulted in Kim’s shutting down the plutonium program at Yongbyon in exchange for Washington’s unfreezing millions of dollars in assets, and removing North Korea from its list of terrorist-sponsoring states. While Kim didn’t dismantle any bombs, the halt in new plutonium production was hailed as one of Bush’s few real diplomatic triumphs.
But that deal featured a big blind spot. It failed to address the all-important question of whether North Korea was also enriching uranium. The mystery has been dogging analysts ever since the summer of 2002, when Bush officials received dramatic intelligence claiming that North Korea had imported equipment that can be used for uranium enrichment, including aluminum tubes from Germany and centrifuges procured from the notorious Pakistani nuclear scientist-merchant, A.Q. Khan.
This was a bit like discovering that the coke dealer you’d just paroled now has components for a crystal meth lab in his trunk. We knew about the plutonium, but what the hell were they doing with uranium? The Bush team confronted the North Koreans about the intelligence and understood them to have confessed (the North Koreans, in classic form, have since denied the confession). Regardless, a 1994 “no new nukes” deal hashed out by the Clinton administration collapsed, and in early 2003, North Korea, perhaps watching the impending fate of Iraq, which lacked a credible deterrent against America, defiantly restarted their plutonium production. By the time Chris Hill temporarily convinced them to shut it down again, Kim’s scientists had probably weaponized about 68 pounds of plutonium, enough for four or five bombs. That figure is at best an informed estimate. But what we have no idea about is how much additional nuclear material, if any, the North has in the form of uranium.
The Bush hawks certainly believe the worst. In November 2002 the CIA warned that “the North is constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons per year when fully operational--which could be as soon as mid-decade.” Reinterpreting this finding, George Bush quickly claimed: “They’re enriching uranium, with a desire of developing a weapon.” Dick Cheney and John Bolton made similar assertions. The respected former Iraq weapons inspector David Kay would later complain that Bush officials had pushed the claim “way further than the evidence indicated it should go.”
But by early 2007 that tune changed. Bush and Condoleezza Rice were ready to pursue last-ditch diplomacy with the North, and the U.S. was questioning its own WMD intelligence after the Iraq fiasco. In February of that year, a top intelligence official testified that while the U.S. had “high confidence” that North Korea once purchased equipment to enrich uranium, officials had only “mid-confidence” that anything was done with it. For all we know, he suggested, those centrifuges could be sitting on a shelf collecting dust. Hill also gave a speech airing similar doubts.
It’s still not clear whether the Bush team first talked up the uranium charge as a means of pressuring the North, then dialed it back when it came time for diplomacy. But before leaving office, the Bushies wrote one last chapter to this story. In 2008 the North allowed the U.S. to test their aluminum tubes, claiming that they were merely for missile production. Yet the tests revealed trace elements of uranium, as did some 180,000 pages of documents the North Koreans turned over.
Case closed, right? The Defense Intelligence Agency, parts of the CIA, and Dick Cheney’s office thought so. They pointed to a single uranium particle found to be just three and a half years old, according to The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, making it too recent to come from the Pakistani program. (Islamabad has acknowledged giving North Korea a sample centrifuge kit in the early 1990s.) But the Energy Department--which made the right call in a similar dispute over Saddam Hussein’s tubes--says the uranium probably is from Pakistan.
Despite the divide, Bush officials once again started talking tough on this score. In a broad speech just days before Obama’s inauguration, Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, worked in a specific warning about “increasing concerns that North Korea has an ongoing covert uranium enrichment program.”
For its part, the new Obama team has yet to take a clear stand. During her Senate confirmation hearings Hillary Clinton said “[t]here is reason to believe [a highly enriched uranium program] exists, although [it has] never quite [been] verified.” But on her February trip to Asia, Clinton sounded more skeptical when asked whether the North has such a program. “Have they? I don’t know that, and nobody else does, either.” Obama’s new envoy to Pyongyang, Stephen Bosworth, also seems poised to downplay the uranium conundrum. Bosworth has argued that the Bush administration fixated excessively on the North’s nuclear activities, and that future negotiations should take a broader perspective that includes economics and politics.
Given that Kim has been particularly obstinate about the uranium question, Bosworth may prefer to deprioritize it, as did Chris Hill. It’s true that the good options are limited: Military action is out of the question, unless we’re ready to sacrifice Seoul; and it has proven almost impossible to force the one country Pyongyang really listens to--China--to crack down on its neighbor. (Merely passing a U.N. “statement”--not even a resolution--condemning the North’s missile launch last week took several days of haggling with both Beijing and Moscow.) The light-touch approach would be to first establish a better relationship with the North, convince them not to restart their plutonium program, and address the uranium question sometime down the road.
But ignoring the possibility that North Korea is churning out highly enriched uranium entails real risk. Every extra pound of nuclear material in the struggling Hermit Kingdom likely increases the odds that some of it will be sold, stolen, or diverted--whether by Kim himself or by a nuclear scientist with the same material cravings as A.Q. Khan. Moreover, every additional bomb that North Korea builds raises Kim’s leverage if and when America strikes a grand bargain in which he dismantles his arsenal.
Whether that is a risk worth taking will hinge on how Obama and his new intelligence team, including CIA director Leon Panetta and National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair, interpret the inconclusive evidence before them. There’s ample reason to think the Bushies erred on the side of suspicion. But in an intelligence world scarred by the blown call in Iraq, there’s also reason to worry that the Obama team could err on the side of complacency.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.