Jeffrey LewisSize Matters

I am having technical trouble with this post. The whole thing is cross posted at Danger Room.

Well, after American negotiators Chris Hill and Joe DeTrani admitted that earlier estimates of the North Korean nuclear program were exaggerated, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Yeah, good luck with that.

ODNI released a statement by North Korea Mission Manager Joseph DeTrani stating that “The Intelligence Community had then, and continues to have, high confidence in its assessment that North Korea has pursued” a “uranium enrichment capability.”

OK, sure. Unfortunately, that has exactly nothing to do with the today’s controversy. From the late 1990s, the US intelligence community had suspected North Korea of “efforts to acquire a uranium enrichment capability.” So that wasn’t the issue. It was how big those efforts were that mattered—ultimately in leading the Bush Administration to pull out of talks in 2002. In other words, Pyongyang’s cheating on its previous nuclear deals wasn’t all that important; the size of the cheating was.

Read the rest at Danger Room


  1. Jeffrey Lewis

    Here are two of the stories that I reference:

    (1) Shin Yong-bae, “U.S. pinpoints 3 suspected sites in North Korean nuclear program,” The Korea Herald, October 21, 2002.

    (2) “N. Korea has secret uranium production facility: daily,” Japan Economic Newswire, June 8, 2000.


    October 21, 2002, Monday

    LENGTH: 329 words

    HEADLINE: U.S. pinpoints 3 suspected sites in North Korean nuclear program

    BYLINE: By Shin Yong-bae Staff reporter

    The United States has indicated the Academy of Sciences near Pyongyang as being one of three sites where it suspects North Korea carried out uranium-enrichment tests in connection with its admitted secret nuclear program, a diplomatic source said yesterday.

    The other two sites the United States mentioned are the Hagap region located in Hwicheon, Jagang Province, and Yeongjeo-dong in Yanggang Province, about 20km from the Chinese border, according to the source.

    Washington informed Seoul of the three testing-grounds several days after a U.S. high-level delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly entered the North early this month, the source said.

    The United States announced last week that the North admitted to having a nuclear development program aimed at enriching enough uranium to make nuclear weapons during a meeting with Kelly, the first official high-level talks between the two countries under the Bush administration.

    Analysts suggested the North chose to enrich uranium, rather than Pyongyang’s initial choice, plutonium, to facilitate a nuclear weapons technology that is easier to hide and more reliable, although harder to assemble.

    While spelling out the North’s nuclear program, the United States recently told South Korea that the laboratory in the Academy of Sciences is the most likely venue for the communist regime to have tested the uranium enrichment.

    According to South Korea’s intelligence report, the North’s Academy of Sciences is a complex of science and technology research institutes located in Eunjeong District, an outskirt of Pyongyang.

    North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is said to have made several visits to the research town to encourage scientists and technicians since 1987.

    South Korean officials refused to comment on the allegation that the U.S. delivered intelligence regarding the suspected nuclear sites to the Seoul government, citing issues of confidentiality.


    Copyright 2000 Kyodo News Service Japan Economic Newswire

    June 8, 2000, Thursday

    LENGTH: 290 words

    HEADLINE: N. Korea has secret uranium production facility: daily

    DATELINE: TOKYO, June 9 Kyodo

    BODY:North Korea has been producing uranium at a secret underground complex at Mt. Chonma near its border with China since late 1989, a Japanese newspaper reported Friday.

    The Sankei Shimbun reported in a front-page dispatch from Seoul that a former North Korean military official who fled to China last year revealed the existence of the Chonma facility during interrogation by Chinese officials.

    According to a report drawn up based on his statements, North Korean soldiers started building the complex—a large tunnel under the 1,116-meter mountain in the northwestern part of the country—in 1984, the Sankei said.

    The facility was completed in 1986 and the production of uranium, which can be used as raw material for producing nuclear weapons, started at the end of 1989, the report said.

    The facility, known as the (Mt.) Chonma Power Plant in North Korea, has some 400 workers, including 35 technicians and 100 people in management posts. The remainder are manual laborers who are all political prisoners detained for life.

    The document also reportedly touched on the United States, which had inspected a separate underground complex suspected to be a nuclear facility in Kumchangri, about 30 kilometers southeast of Mt. Chonma.

    The U.S. did not notice the existence of the Chonma facility during the inspection, although forests in the Kumchangri area were noticeably polluted by water discharged from the Chonma facility, the daily said, quoting the report.

    The 66-year-old former North Korean military official attempted to defect to a third country after fleeing to China, but he is believed to have been sent back to North Korea by Chinese authorities, the daily quoted South Korean sources as saying.

  2. Andreas

    Baseless speculation or not, the picture still looks great.

  3. Robot Economist (History)

    Jeffrey – Where did that Bob Gallucci citation originally come from?

  4. Jeffrey Lewis
  5. Andy (History)

    I’ve kept quiet for a bit here, but I think I now have to protest characterizations that the administration purposely and deceptively overstated the uranium program in 2002 (with emphasis on deceptively). A much more likely explanation, based on the very little information available, is that the nature of the intelligence changed, not the nature of the analysis or political spin on analysis. It’s not clear what piece or pieces of information the IC received in July 2002 that caused the dramatic change (as Armitage describes it) from an R&D program to production. Whatever it was, it appears to come from a single source, which is obviously problematic.

    The change between 2002 and today is likely due to a number of factors. First, it’s almost certain that further intelligence was gathered that either diminished the credibility of the information Armitage cited, or provided additional context that weakened the assessment of a full-scale production program. Secondly, the North Koreans appear to have scaled-back or perhaps even ceased much of their work on enrichment. Whether that was due to the exposure of the program and US pressure or the North’s realization that enrichment is not easy isn’t clear.

    So I don’t see charges that the administration lied in order to provide a casus for pulling out of the framework as particularly convincing, even given prior misuse of intelligence.

    Finally, we don’t know the basis behind the CIA’s 2002 estimate that stated the North Korean enrichment facility “could be” operational “as soon as mid-decade.” In intelligence-speak using “could be” and “as soon as” is another way of saying “we don’t have a lot of information and this is the worst case scenario.” Unfortunately, this often is translated into a solid assessment or even fact when intelligence is quoted. Even you, Jeffrey, incorrectly stated in your previous post the CIA believed the facility “would be operational by “mid decade.” That’s not what the NIE, in fact, said.

    Finally, in my experience, when faced with grossly inadequate information on a topic or capability, policymakers typically want a worst-case estimate and the CIA’s caveated “mid-decade” language jives with that. One of my pet peeves in regard to intelligence writing is the lack of clarity that allows intelligence conclusions to be misinterpreted, particularly by laymen, but that’s a subject best left for another time. I’m sure the classified portion of the NIE is more clear, but the CIA and IC in general should use more precise language in summaries, particularly those that are declassified.

  6. Andy (History)

    Chris hill was interviewed on NPR this morning. Here’s the link for the transcript and audio:

    Chris Hill on North Korean Uranium:

    “Well, first of all, we do continue to assess that North Korea has attempted and succeeded in buying a number of parts to put together a uranium-enrichment program. How far they got and whether they were successful in actually manufacturing highly enriched uranium, that’s hard to say. But in our view, there’s no question they were purchasing parts from a number of places in the world, and it’s something that we’re going to have to really run to ground.”