Jeffrey LewisDavid Sanger: Two Time Loser on Kilju and Kumchang-ri?

Daniel Sneider of the San Jose Mercury-News observes similarities between recent allegations of nuclear test preparations near Kilju and the 1998 revelation that North Korea was constructing an underground nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility near Kumchang-ri—a claim that turned out to be false:

The cloud over the nuclear test preparations reflects a history of intelligence failure concerning North Korea. In 1998, satellite images and other intelligence gathered at a site called Kumchang-ri, near North Korea’s border with China, seemed to indicate that the North Koreans were building a secret nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility to replace ones then under international control. For months, intelligence agencies followed developments at the site, observing tunnels being dug, watching concrete being poured, looking for air shafts and cooling ponds for evidence it was a nuclear facility.

The Defense Intelligence Agency made an “early assessment that this was happening and there was no other explanation for it,’’ said Charles “Jack’’ Pritchard, a former Army intelligence official who served as the deputy head of North Korea negotiating team.

Other agencies were more skeptical. “Everybody threw up their hands and said we don’t know what it is, but we don’t have a better explanation,’’ said the former senior intelligence analyst.

The Defense Intelligence Agency’s adamant conclusion “turned up in the New York Times before we were ready,’’ Pritchard recounted, referring to an August 1998 Page One story. That report put political pressure on the Clinton administration, already under fire for failing to press North Korea. It demanded access to the site, going to the brink of renewed confrontation.

For a time, the North Koreans pushed the confrontation. “They recognized it was a useful thing to have us spun up for a period of time,’’ the former analyst said. Finally, they agreed to allow access.

Two visits by American inspectors, using sophisticated technology, revealed that while this was a sensitive defense facility of an undetermined nature, “there was no way that it was nuclear,’’ said Pritchard, a conclusion he said was reaffirmed in a 2003 review of the incident.

One similarity Sneider doesn’t mention: David Sanger of the New York Times was the sucker holding the bag in that case, too.

A couple of weeks ago, Sanger scooped the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, reporting on “rapid, extensive preparations for a nuclear weapons test, including the construction of a reviewing stand…”

Then his sources started having second thoughts especially about that reviewing stand, prompting Sanger to write:

Last week, three sources in different parts of the United States government told The New York Times that they had seen or been briefed on evidence of what looked like grandstands erected at a distance from the suspected test site, raising suspicions that preparations were in place for observers of a possible test. They acknowledged that even if there were grandstands, they could exist for another purpose.

But one agency cautioned at the same time that it knew of no evidence of any such structure. This week officials at the intelligence arm of the State Department expressed the same view. As written intelligence reports are usually shared among agencies, their inability to confirm the information was striking.

Some positions are shifting: a senior administratrion official who confirmed the presence of the grandstand last week said late Wednesday that he was now uncertain whether the structure was related to the test site.

Here’s a little hint: If the same guys burned you on both stories, it’s time to update the rolodex.


  1. J (History)

    Another rule all journalists should adopt: When sources, speaking on background, tell you one thing, and then later amend or retract their comments, their privilege of anonymity should be immediately revoked.

    This is what should have happened with the Newsweek case—why the magazine is getting all the blame when the unidentified Administration official who served as the source for the initial report is getting off scot-free—I just don’t understand that.

  2. Captain_Canuck

    Has any progress been made on identifying what Kumchang-ri is, beyond “a sensitive defense facility of an undetermined nature”?

  3. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    US inspectors have inspected Kumchang-ri in May 1999 and May 2000.

    In 1999, the State Department concluded:

    * The site at Kumchang-ni does not contain a plutonium production reactor or reprocessing plant, either completed or under construction.

    * Given the current size and configuration of the underground area, the site is unsuitable for the installation of a plutonium production reactor, especially a graphite-moderated reactor of the type North Korea has built at Yongbyon.

    * The site is also not well designed for a reprocessing plant. Nevertheless, since the site is a large underground area, it could support such a facility in the future with substantial modifications.

    * At this point in time the U.S. cannot rule out the possibility that the site was intended for other nuclear-related uses although it does not appear to be currently configured to support any large industrial nuclear functions.

    In September 2000, Secretary of Defense William Cohen and ROK Minister of National Defense Cho Seong Tae issued a Joint Communiqué stating:

    With regard to the suspect underground site at Kumchang-ri in North Korea, the two Ministers expressed their satisfaction with the prompt completion of the second visit there, which confirmed the conclusion of the first visit in May 1999 that the facility did not violate the Agreed Framework.

    The North Koreans, as far as I can tell, haven’t provided an official explanation.