North Korean Uranium Enrichment Issue Re-Emerges as Clinton Visits Seoul

By Patrick Goodenough | February 19, 2009 | 4:45 AM EST

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton waves to reporters as she heads to South Korea from Jakarta, Indonesia, on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

( – Just days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to play down the importance of North Korea’s uranium enrichment activities relative to its plutonium-based program, a major South Korean newspaper has put the uranium issue back in the spotlight.
The Dong-A Ilbo (East Asia Daily), citing an unnamed senior government official in Seoul, said South Korea and the U.S. were aware of the existence of an underground facility to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU).
“Despite North Korea’s denial that uranium enrichment programs exist, South Korea and the United States have shared information that North Korea has built an uranium enrichment plant which is in operation,” the paper quoted the official as saying.
The clandestine facility was reported to be located at Sowi-ri, in Yongbyon, the location of the North’s Soviet-era plutonium-based nuclear complex.
The newspaper report came out a day before Clinton was due to arrive in Seoul, the third stop of a four-country Asian trip.
HEU and plutonium offer different routes to an atomic bomb.
Pyongyang has long been known to have a plutonium-based program, and the Clinton administration in 1994 negotiated a deal, the Agreed Framework, under which the plutonium-based facilities at Yongbyon were mothballed and Kim Jong-il pledged to freeze all nuclear activity in return for aid.
But the question of the existence of a separate HEU program is central to the ongoing confrontation between North Korea and the international community.

South Korean protesters burn a North Korean flag during a rally welcoming the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The standoff began in October 2002, when State Department officials said they presented North Korea with evidence that it was cheating on the Agreed Framework by secretly enriching uranium.
Washington said at the time the North Koreans, faced with the evidence, had admitted to the HEU activity. For its part, however, North Korea has consistently denied having made such an admission.
The October 2002 confrontation led to an unraveling of the Agreed Framework. North Korea kicked out U.N. inspectors monitoring its mothballed facilities, restarted a reactor, withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and finally in late 2006 tested a nuclear device which U.S. intelligence officials concluded was plutonium-based.
But the HEU issue did not go away. In 2005, then CIA director Porter Goss told U.S. lawmakers that the CIA believed North Korea continued to pursue an HEU capability, drawing on the help it received from the nuclear black-market network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
In October 2007, North Korea agreed with its “six-party talks” negotiating partners – the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia – to declare “all” of its nuclear programs and to “disable” three specified plutonium-based facilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions.
The “disablement” part of the deal moved ahead, but the U.S. said North Korea was holding out on declaring all of its nuclear activities, refusing to give details about uranium enrichment and proliferation.
Last June, North Korea handed over documents it said constituted a full and accurate declaration of its activities. More wrangling followed, this time over how the international community could verify that declaration.

North Korean farmers working near the border village of Panmunjom, north of Seoul, Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009. North Korea says its missile and nuclear programs pose no threat, ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to South Korea for talks expected to focus on the communist country. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

After more negotiations, the State Department last October announced it finally had agreement on a verification protocol which – according to a key phrase – “will apply to the plutonium-based program and any uranium enrichment and proliferation activities.” In return, Washington struck North Korea off its list of terror-sponsoring states.
By December, however, the process stalled yet again after the parties failed in attempts to finalize a written verification protocol.
‘Casting doubt’
When Clinton was undergoing Senate confirmation hearings last month, she referred to the HEU program, saying that while there was “reason to believe” it existed, it was “never quite verified.”
Asked about that comment while en route to Asia early this week, Clinton again relegated the uranium issue to a position of lesser importance.
“It’s clear to me that one can raise questions about the extent of the highly enriched uranium program. We want to know for sure exactly what it is, where it is, and make sure it is dismantled,” she told reporters on the plane. “But there is no doubt about the reprocessing of plutonium, which has led to the acquisition of nuclear material on the part of the North Koreans.”
Clinton also appeared to blame the Bush administration – rather than North Korea – for the demise of the Agreed Framework, saying it had been “torn up on the basis of the concerns about the highly enriched uranium program.”
Her remarks resulted in headlines like “Clinton discounts NK uranium threat,” and reports that the secretary of state had “cast doubt” on the Bush administration’s claim that Pyongyang had an HEU program.
They also drew sharp criticism Wednesday from John Bolton, a top arms control official in the Bush administration and former ambassador to the U.N.
“By continually casting doubt on the very existence of Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment program, Clinton is only reinforcing the North’s determination not to allow meaningful verification of its nuclear program,” Bolton said in an analysis posted by the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a senior fellow.
Bolton also took issue with her stance on the Agreed Framework.
“North Korea’s repeated violations of the Agreed Framework breached the agreement, not the Bush White House,” he said. “Pyongyang cheated on the agreement’s central premise – the North’s denuclearization – and lied about it.”
Bolton added, “Adhering to U.S. commitments under the framework while the North was violating its obligations would have been a classic case of rewarding bad behavior – exactly what the Clinton administration did wrong [in 1994].”
In response to queries about the Dong-A Ilbo report, the State Department Wednesday released a statement saying, “We are aware of these press reports. As is standard practice, we do not comment on matters related to intelligence. The United States remains committed to the six-party process and to working with our six-party partners toward the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow