Heres a key passage

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January 19, 2003 10:14 p.m.

Here’s a key passage from a Sunday Times article on US and Russian intelligence gathering in North Korea.

The latest crisis over the North Korean nuclear program erupted last year, when United States intelligence obtained strong evidence that North Korea had secretly developed a uranium enrichment program, which would represent a second track toward the development and production of nuclear weapons. American officials said there was fragmentary evidence of a uranium enrichment effort as far back as the late 1990’s, but much more compelling evidence of such a program came last year, officials said.

This squares with my own reporting, as far it goes. But it begs the question: How much was known about the program? And when?

Last week I spoke to a Clinton administration official who told me that in 1999 and 2000 the US didn’t know the North Koreans had a uranium-enrichment program, per se. But they did have evidence that they were purchasing centrifuge equipment and other hardware that you would use to put such a program together. That would square with this subsequent, unclassified CIA report from 2001 which said North Korea had “been seeking centrifuge-related materials in large quantities to support a uranium enrichment program. It also obtained equipment suitable for use in uranium feed and withdrawal systems.”

The relevant point is this: we didn’t know they had a program, as such. But we knew they were buying all the stuff you’d use to create such a program. Which is to say, we pretty much knew they had a program.

(I was also told that the North Koreans made “an all-out push” to actually get the program started about two years ago, though it wasn’t clear, from what my source told me, whether this acceleration was tied to the turnover in the US administration or for other reasons.)

In any case, what seems very clear is that the US knew of the existence of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program long before October 2002. As The Nelson Report disclosed a couple weeks ago, former members of the Clinton administration say they briefed the incoming administration on this in January 2001. Clearly, over time, more and more information became available. A Post article from last week says administration officials “received conclusive evidence” about the program in July 2002. But given how hardcore the administration is on such issues, presumably they wouldn’t need to get Kim Jong Il’s embossed Uranium-Enrichment Open House invitation in the mail before kicking things into gear.

And thus the question: If it’s been known about for so long, why did it take two years to bring it up with the North Koreans?

I suspect a significant part of the answer is that for a year and a half the White House couldn’t decide whether to engage or confront North Korea. And without resolving that basic question, nothing much could be done at all.

We need to know what the administration knew and when they knew it.

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