Jeffrey LewisThe Incredible Shrinking HEU Program

So, Joe DeTrani and Chris Hill admit that the intel on North Korea’s enrichment program is sketchy and all hell breaks loose … (Read the full text
of their testimonies).

Giacomo, Sanger and Broad, Kessler, and Landay all have stories. Cue the outraged editorials by the Washington Post and New York Times lamenting that the Administration might have been fixing the facts around the policy, in the parlance of our times.

Shocked to find gambling in the casino, eh?

Not a single one of these reporters cited the other reporters who beat them to the punch in 2003 and 2005.

After the CIA released a November 2002 estimate claiming that North Korea was constructing a uranium enrichment facility that would be operational by “mid decade,” Barbara Slavin and John Diamond in USA Today and Paul Kerr in Arms Control Today managed to point out that the story was bogus.

Slavin and Diamond started the ball rolling in 2003 with a skeptical US intelligence official:

A U.S. intelligence official says the CIA, which has conducted extensive surveillance of North Korea, is “not certain there even is” a uranium-enrichment plant. [Full text in the comments]

Our own Paul Kerr directly methodically addressed each claim in the detail we’ve come to expect from Arms Control Today, closing with quotes Congressional and State Department officials describing the evidence with the terms of art like “pretty sketchy”:

A former Department of State official told Arms Control Today Sept. 26 that North Korea has probably imported enough components for 3,000-5,000 centrifuges and may have acquired enough for 6,000-7,000.


The former U.S. official, however, cautioned that the number of completed centrifuges in North Korea’s possession is unknown, adding that Pyongyang has most of the key components but may lack certain essential parts. Expressing a bit more skepticism regarding North Korea’s centrifuge holdings, a congressional source familiar with the issue told Arms Control Today in February that, according to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang probably does not have certain critical items for its program and is apparently making little progress in acquiring them. (See ACT, March 2005.)


Publicly available intelligence assessments regarding a possible North Korean enrichment facility are inconclusive. For example, the CIA reported in November 2002 that North Korea was “constructing a centrifuge facility” capable of producing enough fissile material for “two or more nuclear weapons per year” as soon as “mid-decade.” But subsequent agency reports to Congress covering North Korea’s nuclear programs in 2002 became increasingly vague, saying only that North Korea had the “goal” of constructing such a facility. A similar 2003 assessment said nothing about the program.


Providing yet another view, a knowledgeable former congressional staff member told Arms Control Today Sept. 27 that the Bush administration has never presented any “credible evidence” to relevant congressional staff that North Korea has ever sought to advance its enrichment efforts beyond a research and development program.

The question of whether North Korea has a facility capable of producing uranium hexafluoride could also prove difficult to resolve. The public evidence that Pyongyang possesses such a facility is thin, and the former State Department official described the administration’s intelligence on the matter as “pretty sketchy.” Knowledgeable current and former U.S. officials have articulated differing assessments on the matter both in published accounts and interviews with Arms Control Today.

Paul later noted that when he was talking to officials that he “couldn’t find anyone who would really defend the intelligence.”

Paul’s stories were all duly noted on this blog. So my readers won’t be shocked to learn that the NORK HEU program was not all that some officials said it was (Lookin’ at you, Condi). In a way, I am glad that the Post and the Times were so late to the story—this is exactly why I started the blog.

But hey, if you want to wait 18 months extra to get the real story, that’s your business.

If you want the backstory on the intelligence regarding the NORK enrichment program and how the Bush Administration used to promote certain policy preferences, the place to start is:

Jonathan D. Pollack, “The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework,” Naval War College Review LVI:3, Summer 2003.

For more on the NORK enrichment program, see: David Albright North Korea’s Alleged Large-Scale Enrichment Plant: Yet Another Questionable Extrapolation Based on Aluminum Tubes, February 23, 2007.


  1. Jeffrey Lewis

    Here is the Slavin and Diamond article:

    Copyright 2003 Gannett Company, Inc. USA TODAY

    November 5, 2003, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION

    SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 18A

    LENGTH: 654 words

    HEADLINE: N. Korean nuclear efforts looking less threatening

    BYLINE: Barbara Slavin and John Diamond


    BODY:WASHINGTON—A year after North Korea provoked a crisis with the United States by admitting a secret effort to make weapons-grade uranium, U.S. officials say the program appears to be far less advanced than diplomats had feared.

    Intensive international monitoring and North Korean ineptitude have significantly slowed efforts to build a plant to produce highly enriched uranium, says a State Department official involved in U.S. attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

    A U.S. intelligence official says the CIA, which has conducted extensive surveillance of North Korea, is “not certain there even is” a uranium-enrichment plant. He says North Korea may have overstated its capability as part of a strategy of “bluff and bluster to extract concessions from the United States.”

    If it turns out that North Korea’s uranium production is not advanced, it could be much easier to work out a new deal to end the North’s bombmaking efforts. Though North Korea is believed to have enough fuel for two to eight nuclear weapons, those weapons would use plutonium derived from a long-acknowledged nuclear complex at Yongbyon. The reason it’s still unclear whether there is a uranium program is that such efforts are difficult to monitor. Plutonium programs, however, emit krypton gas that can be measured from the atmosphere.

    “I would find this report encouraging” because it would indicate the North’s nuclear threat is less grave than portrayed, says Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

    Experts say it is possible some U.S. officials exaggerated the extent of the uranium program to torpedo a 1994 U.S. agreement with North Korea that traded energy aid for a freeze on nuclear development. Bush administration hard-liners had been trying to end the agreement in hopes of overturning the isolated, totalitarian regime. Following North Korea’s admission that it was trying to develop a uranium-enrichment capability, the administration stopped shipping fuel oil to North Korea. The regime responded by kicking out United Nations inspectors from the Yongbyon complex, where work had been frozen under the agreement.

    North Korea reactivated the complex after the inspectors left.

    But that effort, too, appears less advanced than some had feared. “Whatever they are doing appears constrained,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank focused on nuclear issues. He says North Korea has not even tried to finish a reactor near Yongbyon that could produce 10 bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.

    Hopes for a new agreement rose last week after North Korea tentatively agreed to attend new talks in China on the nuclear issue. The United States and North Korea’s neighbors are pressuring the regime to end its weapons program.

    U.S. officials caution that it is impossible to know for sure what the North Koreans have been up to since they withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty this year. The regime is notoriously opaque, and it’s hard to detect uranium enrichment without having spies inside the country.

    But some efforts to stymie the program have been successful. Last April, Germany blocked North Korea’s purchase of 200 tons of aluminum tubing suitable for vacuum casings for centrifuges. Twenty-two tons made it on board a French ship in Hamburg but was seized in the Suez Canal.

    “Our attempts to heighten awareness have had an impact,” the State Department official says.

    Kenneth Quinones, a former Korea intelligence analyst at the State Department, says North Korea has obtained components but has not built a plant housing the thousands of centrifuges required to enrich large amounts of uranium. “They have pieces of the puzzle,” he says.

    Others say North Korea could have obtained only a “starter kit” for uranium enrichment from Pakistan, but not technical expertise.

  2. Anonymous

    You cite today’s WaPo and NYT editorials as “lamenting that the Administration might have been fixing the facts around the policy, in the parlance of our times.” But while the NYT editorial is certainly saying that, the WaPo editorial isn’t. Key grafs from the WaPo editorial:

    “What the administration knew in 2002—and what remains uncontested now—is that North Korea secretly obtained 20 centrifuges for uranium enrichment from Pakistan and purchased other equipment needed to construct a large-scale enrichment facility. When U.S. officials confronted the North Koreans at a bilateral negotiation session, members of a U.S. diplomatic team received what they believed was a defiant confirmation. That tipped an internal administration debate toward hard-liners who all along had wanted to renounce the Clinton administration’s ‘agreed framework’ with Pyongyang.

    “No doubt those hard-liners made use of the CIA’s conclusions about a factory under construction. Yet even without that intelligence some action would have been warranted. The United States and its allies were supplying Pyongyang with food and energy on the assumption that its nuclear program was frozen, only to discover that it had covertly begun work in another area. It would have been foolish to ignore such activity by a criminal regime.”

  3. Anonymous 2

    Yes i’d have to agree. There doesn’t seem to be any “lambasting” in the WaPo editorial, if anything, they’re basically apologizing for the Bush administration’s stance on DPRK in 2002. In fact , the editorial ignores their paper’s own reporting. For example. the Post editorial says:

    “On this basis the administration suspended a deal under which North Korea received fuel oil in exchange for freezing a separate program to produce plutonium. Pyongyang responded by restarting that program and producing enough plutonium for a number of nuclear weapons, one of which it tested last October.”

    Yet their own article the day before says: “The North Koreans were able to reprocess spent fuel rods—which had been monitored by U.N. inspectors under the 1994 agreement—to obtain the weapons-grade plutonium for a nuclear test last year”

    So the Post editorial seems to give Bush and Co. a pass. When they ended the agreement, the North Koreans didn’t have to spend that extra time b/c they already had the spent fuel rods ready to go. The Post editorial doesn’t recognize this.

  4. Glenn Kessler

    Sorry, but the news is that the administration says it’s sketchy—on the record. With a tip of my hat to the earlier reports, what has changed is that we don’t have unnamed officials saying this, but a real-life Assistant Secretary of State and the mission manager for North Korea. THAT’S why all hell broke loose.

  5. Andrew Foland (History)

    If you like your news only about 12 months too late, last year Newsweek reported on how US diplomats concluded that the DPRK had confessed to a program:

    “There is some evidence that the Bush administration was seeking to manipulate intelligence on North Korea. During a visit to Pyongyang by lead negotiator James Kelly in October 2002, he presented what U.S. officials described as “proof” that the North had a secret uranium-enrichment program, undercutting Clintonite claims that Kim was adhering to a pledge not to advance his nuclear program. Bush officials later said the North Koreans had confessed. But diplomats now say that was a translation error. (Kelly could not be reached for comment.)”


    According to a Washington Post article I remember reading but can’t put my hands on now, the transcript of the meeting really doesn’t support the claim that they confessed, but that US diplomats took their belligerent response as a “tonal” admission.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis


    Of course the on-the-record comments by De Trani and Hill are news. And your story stood out in emphasizing that fact — with DeTrani in particular. (I should also add that Sanger and Broad, to their credit, did mention that doubts “have been brewing for some time.”)

    But the fact that all the major stories ignored the previous reporting—from another mainstream outlet and one of the premier “trade” publications—seems to me poor form.

    Worse than being a little rude — and hey, this is tough town — not mentioning previous reports undermines a reporter’s credibility by leaving the implication that he or she isn’t well-versed in the history of the discussion — although I suspect the motive has more to do with editorial room decisions than any individual reporter’s competence or competitiveness.

  7. Jeffrey Lewis

    Anonymous 1 and 2

    I take your point re: the Post editorial.

    On my first read, I thought the editorial was kind of mealy mouthed, observing that, yes, an investigation into the intelligence is good idea, but the clearly the North Koreans were doing something bad, so the Bush Administration had to do something, even if the something was driven by hardliners seizing the opportunity. On my second read, I think they want to defend the Bush Administration, but can’t quite bring themselves to do it.

    In the end, I did a poor job summarizing the editorial in favor focusing on the failure to mention Paul’s reporting in Arms Control Today, as well as that by Barbara Slavin and John Diamond in USA Today because it struck me as a manifestation of what Dan Okrent called “hit and run” journalism in the wake of the Judy Miller fiasco. Okrent wrote:

    HIT-AND-RUN JOURNALISM The more surprising the story, the more often it must be revisited. If a defector like Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri is hailed by intelligence officials for providing “some of the most valuable information” about chemical and biological laboratories in Iraq (“Defectors Bolster U.S. Case Against Iraq, Officials Say,” by Judith Miller, Jan. 24, 2003), unfolding events should have compelled the paper to re-examine those assertions, and hold the officials publicly responsible if they did not pan out.

    In that same story anonymous officials expressed fears that Haideri’s relatives in Iraq “were executed as a message to potential defectors.”

    Were they? Did anyone go back to ask? Did anything Haideri say have genuine value? Stories, like plants, die if they are not tended. So do the reputations of newspapers.

    I am glad the papers are holding Administration officials responsible for shifting their language on the intelligence. But for nearly five years, those assessments went unchallenged in many news outlets. I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask the reporters to at least credit their competitors who have been following the story diligently. To put it another way, shouldn’t the regular readers know that no one inside the Beltway has believed the November 2002 estimate for years, if ever?

    But that is somewhat beside the point — as you both say, the Post editorial isn’t “lambasting” the Bush Administration. I appreciate you making that clear in the comments.

  8. Rwendland (History)

    Carol Giacomo (Reuters) first cut of this story actually came out Feb 10, quoting “U.S. officials”, well ahead of the recent crop of stories:

  9. Hass

    Who cares? Look, we can’t wait for the evidence in the form of a mushroom cloud.

  10. Daryl Kimball

    Thanks to Jeffrey for recognizing the earlier reporting in Arms Control Today by Paul Kerr and in USA Today by Slavin and Diamond, but I am willing to cut Kessler and the other reporters some slack for not mentioning that ealier reporting. The “news” was, as Glenn said the on-the-record nature of the revised assessment.

    What is missing in all of this discusssion and much of the recent reporting is an examination of why the administration, even with an overzealous intell assessment in the fall of 2002, cut off talks and HFO to the DPRK? What led to the faulty intell assessment? Was this another unreliable “curveball”-like source, or a misinterpretation physical evidence, or a willfull attempt to bend the assessment in a direction that would support the desired policy direction of the administration (which was to dismantle the Agreed Framework)? All questions that merit further probing …

  11. Rwendland (History)

    Note also the San Jose Mercury News article that claims “An audit of the Banco Delta Asia’s finances by accounting firm Ernst & Young found no evidence that the bank had facilitated North Korean money-laundering”. I can’t find a second independent source for this, but if true it does suggest (together with the HEU story) an effort to push stories to rationalise a U.S. abandonment of the Agreed Framework.

  12. Glenn Kessler

    Gee, Jeffrey, ouch!

    I’m not sure what to say—I do cover North Korea pretty closely—but I do enjoy your website.

  13. IR Guy

    Maybe I’m missing something here. Didn’t North Korea just pop off a nuke a few months back? Whether a plant was under construction in Nov 2002 seems to be a moot point now, doesn’t it? I mean, what else could they have been importing those centrifuge parts for? To make penicillin?

  14. Jeffrey Lewis


    My comment wasn’t aimed at you or any individual reporter — as I said, “I suspect the motive has more to do with editorial room decisions than any individual reporter’s competence or competitiveness.”

    And, I also noted that you did a great job of noting DeTrani’s past statements.

    But I notice a general trend in news stories to omit the mention of competitors.

    Apologies if I offended you, that wasn’t my intention.

  15. Lisa Simpson

    For IR Guy, the nuclear test used plutonium not uranium. The plutonium was largely, if not wholly, separated after the collapse of the Agreed Framework.

    The status of any uranium enrichment program remains a question, with the [lack of] evidence leaning heavily toward the position that there is not a large, production-scale centrifuge program.

  16. Peter Hayes (History)

    Dear Wonkers,

    Some factoids: the DPRK has pursued U enrichment science and technology since the mid-eighties, when it signed a contract with the Russians to supply a light water reactor. They told me in 1991 that they wanted uranium enrichment and were conducting research on how to do it. Galluci was unable to capture uranium enrichment in the 1994 Agreed Framework; the best he could do was to link the Agreed Framework at section III.2 to the DPRK’s commitments under section 3 wherein the DPRK undertook to consistently take steps to implement the North-South 1992 Denuclearization Declaration, but all that does is foreswear U enrichment “facilities” (see both at What’s a facility? What’s consistent? What’s a step…moreover, the Agreed Framework was a Framework, not an Agreement, and you can’t cheat on a framework, so linking the 94 Agreed Framework to the 1992 Denuke Dec was a weak reed at the time, and Galluci knew it then and has admitted so publicly. I heard him do so; you can find this spelled out in the CRS report on Pakistan-DPRK trade at, see footnote 18. So this wasn’t just a Bush failure, it was also a failure of the Clintonites, and before them, Bush Senior; the DPRK nuclear strategy has deeper roots in the US-DPRK conflict, all the way back to 1953.

    By 1998, they were half-in, half-out of the NPT; you can argue the legalisms under the NPT withdrawal clause, but politically, they were free to play at the margins solely at the risk of alienating the United States. So you have to look at what was going on in 1998 onwards. Remember the missile test in August of 1998? Maybe they were starting to get upset with us? Yup, by then, the Agreed Framework was frayed at the edges and beginning to unravel across the whole fabric. Funny thing, we reportedly began to pick up renewed U enrichment intell about the same time, at least, that’s when I first heard about it in Washington as against in Pyongyang.

    Moreover, contrary to “anonymous,” I do not believe that we know what the North Koreans have today in terms of U enrichment capacities, although my own best guess is not much. Nor do we know what they got from Pakistan. It is in Musharaff’s interest to admit that they made some relatively small centrifuge transfers to the DPRK. Maybe they transferred more, less, exactly what he said in interviews and book (neither of which actually specify anything specific), or (low probability?) none at all. No-one should rely on Musharaff’s “disclosures” as an objective source on Pakistani-DPRK dealings, not only because he’s military dictator with no accountability for what he says or writes, but also because Pakistan has an interest in throwing the DPRK to the sharks in order to protect itself from American ire and to keep us from access to the inimitable A.Q. Kahn. Independent analysts should rely on what they know, that is, what they have either ground-truthed, photographed, measured, walked around; have good documentation to support their arguments; or have fundamental physical analysis with which to demonstrate an argument. Everything else should be noted, then put on a shelf until it’s usable data.

    What hasn’t yet come out in the US media is how the intell data was spun inside the Administration in 2002. That’s a story still waiting to hit the wires. Remember this cryptogram when it does: wtofizlopw So what do we know that provides some context? Remember the DPRK-US 2000 communique to improve hostility and improve relations? Tossed away. Remember the years of malign neglect by the Bush Administration, the years of bi-polar disorder as to what constituted US policy, then years of ultra-hardline US policy to squeeze the DPRK regime to capitulate and collapse. And we are surprised, outraged, perplexed that they pushed for enrichment in 2002; and ended up testing in 2006? I know we Americans suffer from serial amnesia, but this level of ethnocentrism is ridiculous, even among techno-nerd arms control wonkers!

    The issue was never whether the DPRK had a U enrichment program; my best guess is that it always had one, at least during the period of contact with the United States after 1991. Rather, what was important was always: what’s the intention of the two adversaries? In October 2002, Kelly genuinely shocked the DPRK leadership with his ultimatum over the alleged enrichment activities. The enrichment issue could have been resolved at that time with a side-agreement wherein the DPRK would have paid a price for alienating the United States as part of a comprehensive nuclear deal. In fact, in my view, the United States could have gotten out of its obligation to supply the heavy fuel oil at the time as punishment and still renegotiated a renewed Agreed Framework Mark 2 that would have captured the DPRK’s entire plutonium program.

    Instead, Kelly simply refused to talk and left Pyongyang after reading the riot act. The North Koreans waited until the following December before they evicted the US inspectors, ahem, US contractors stationed at Yongbyon over the previous six years almost continuously. Things went downhill from there.

    Finally, the most important dimension of the reactor is maintaining the graphite pile so that eventually, we can drill into it to extract and analyze the carbon to determine past plutonium production to a reasonable degree of accuracy. That’s why we should disable, not dismantle the reactor.

    Peter Hayes