From the NYT:
"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 sizeable arsenal if this had been handled differently,” a senior administration official said this week. (...)
The public revelation of the intelligence agencies’ doubts, which have been brewing for some time, came almost by happenstance. In a little-noticed exchange on Tuesday at a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joseph DeTrani, a longtime intelligence official, told Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island that “we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level.” Under the intelligence agencies’ own definitions, that level “means the information is interpreted in various ways, we have alternative views” or it is not fully corroborated.
“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 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.”"
Let's be very clear about what this means. We used to have a deal, the Agreed Framework, that kept North Korea from getting plutonium. We supposedly discovered that they were cheating on that deal by enriching uranium. Personally, I did not think that was a good reason to scrap the Agreed Framework -- making a uranium bomb takes a lot longer than making a plutonium bomb, and I didn't see why the discovery that North Korea had embarked on a slow, cumbersome process of developing nuclear weapons, one that wouldn't actually produce any weapons for years, was a reason to say: well, go ahead and develop nuclear weapons much more quickly, then!
All this time, though, I was assuming that the North Koreans actually had a uranium enrichment program, and that they actually were cheating on the Agreed Framework. That's what this article calls into question.
If they didn't have a uranium program, then we scrapped the Agreed Framework, and let North Korea access its plutonium and build nuclear weapons, FOR NOTHING.
You might ask: why would North Korea admit to having a uranium program if it didn't actually have one? In this case, there's an obvious answer. Namely: North Korea has a long history of trying to get our attention. In any previous administration, this would have gotten it. (Bear in mind that the Clinton administration nearly went to war with North Korea for things that the G. W. Bush administration has barely reacted to at all.) Claiming that they had a uranium enrichment program when they didn't would be completely in character. (So would trying to develop one. I'm not trying to say that this is evidence that they did not have such a program; just that if they didn't have one, it would not be out of character for them to pretend that they did.)
The NYT tells us what evidence the administration drew on in coming to the conclusion that North Korea did have a uranium program. Here it is:
"The strongest evidence for the original assessment was Pakistan’s sale to North Korea of upwards of 20 centrifuges, machines that spin fast to convert uranium gas into highly enriched uranium, a main fuel for atom bombs. Officials feared that the North Koreans would use those centrifuges as models to build a vast enrichment complex. But in interviews this week, experts inside and outside the government said that since then, little or no evidence of Korean procurements had emerged to back up those fears. (...)
But David A. Kay, a nuclear expert and former official who in 2003 and 2004 led the American hunt for unconventional arms in Iraq, said he had found the administration’s claims about the North Korean uranium program unpersuasive. “They were driving it way further than the evidence indicated it should go,” he said in an interview. The leap of logic, Dr. Kay added, turned evidence of equipment purchases into “a significant production capability.”
But the doubts were on full display on Wednesday, when Christopher Hill, the chief American negotiator with North Korea, testified on Capitol Hill. “If we determine that there is a program, it’s got to go,” Mr. Hill said, words that were far more tentative than American policy makers have used about the program in the past. Expressing his resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery, he added, “We cannot have a situation where we — you know, they pretend to disarm and we pretend to believe them. We need to run this into the ground,” he said, noting that while there was no doubt that North Korea bought centrifuges from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the rogue Pakistani engineer, there is doubt about “how far they’ve gotten.”
John E. McLaughlin, a former director of central intelligence and the deputy C.I.A. director in 2002, defended the initial North Korean findings as accurate. “At the time we reported this, we had confidence that they were acquiring materials that could give them the capability to do this down the road,” he said in an interview. But no one, he added, “said they had anything up and running. We also made clear that we did not have a confident understanding of how far along they were.”"
So: our negotiator with North Korea is saying things like: "If we determine that there is a program ..." And the ex-DCI tells us that they never said North Korea had anything "up and running". Now they tell us.
Whether North Korea does have a uranium program or not, this is nothing like enough evidence to warrant scrapping the Agreed Framework.
Every time I think that nothing this administration can do could possibly surprise me, I turn out to be wrong.