With bad effects on policy, but some advantages for clarity, most of our political debates about North Korea are driven by screaming CNN headlines like "NORTH KOREA ADMITS TO MAKING MANY NUKE BOMBS" or "WHITE HOUSE: NORTH KOREA'S URANIUM PROGRAM ON VERGE OF COMPLETION."
But a new article (set to be released tomorrow, but linked here now) from Foreign Affairs argues that the evidence for a North Korean uranium enrichment program (in violation of the 1994 'Agreed Framework') is far more tenuous than the administration has led us to believe.
The piece is written by Korea-watcher Selig Harrison, Director of the Asia Program and Chairman of the Task Force on U.S. Korea Policy at the Center for International Policy.
Precisely what Harrison argues is difficult to summarize in 'they got'em' or 'they don't got'em' terms. But the essence of it is that in early 2002 the White House feared that the process of detente between South Korea, Japan and North Korea might be slipping from its control.
As he writes, the initial confrontation over the North Koreans' alleged uranium enrichment program "seems to have been inspired by the growing alarm felt in Washington in the preceding five months over the ever more conciliatory approach that Seoul and Tokyo had been taking toward Pyongyang; by raising the uranium issue, the Bush administration hoped to scare Japan and South Korea into reversing their policies."
Harrison doesn't say that there was no evidence of a program for producing highly-enriched uranium (HEU). There was some, and some of it dated back to the Clinton administration. But prompted by these geopolitical considerations, the White House portrayed ambiguous evidence as rock-solid proof in order to scuttle the Clinton-era Agreed Framework which had been the basis of rapprochement for the previous several years.
(This argument about political calculations is not novel; but it takes on a new dimension in light of Harrison's arguments about the weakness of the intelligence for an HEU program.)
So what do the North Koreans really have in terms of HEU? The analysis is technical and lengthy -- and if you're interested in this subject, I strongly recommend reading the piece. But, in brief, he argues that it is possible that the North Koreans never had a bomb-related uranium program, more probable that they made some attempts but didn't get very far, and very unlikely that they have or had a program anywhere near as advanced as the White House has led us to believe.
(Harrison's discussion of these various scenarios is inherently speculative, and may in some cases give the North Koreans too much of the benefit of the doubt. But, by my reading, the case Harrison makes for their not having any sort of advanced program -- intentions aside -- seems pretty strong.)
Now, he argues, that focus on an HEU program, which may not even exist, is making it impossible to come up with a deal or solution to the Plutonium-track production which certainly does exist and is the greatest danger that North Korea poses.
If you're interested in this issue, read this article.