Washington: Opposition Democrats said on 1 March they will ask the George W. Bush administration about doubts raised recently over US charges that North Korea has a secret uranium enrichment programme.
The US accusation in 2002 led to a political standoff with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programme, but a US intelligence official said on 27 February the US is now less certain about the uranium programme’s existence.
“We still have confidence that the programme 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.
Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the committee’s chairman, said a letter will be sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and likely to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “with a series of questions about this”.
“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 panel, Senator John Warner, said he hoped to take part in the letter as the issue “should be clarified”.
The US accusations in 2002 that the North was running a secret uranium programme, 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 programme in a landmark deal, has denied having a covert uranium enrichment programme.
The New York Times said two unnamed US administration officials suggested that if Washington had harboured 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 that North Korea admitted in 2002 to having a highly-enriched uranium programme 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 programme.
Pressed on whether Pyongyang just purchased the equipment but never really got an enrichment programme 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 programme in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic benefits.
Under the multi-phase 13 February agreement worked out at the talks involving China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US, North Korea had 60 days to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility, invite back international nuclear inspectors and declare all its nuclear programmes.