North Korea's Uranium-Enrichment Efforts Shrouded in Mystery

Paul Kerr

The current crisis over North Korea’s nuclear activities began when the United States announced October 16 that North Korea had admitted to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly earlier that month that it had a covert uranium-enrichment program. The exact status of the program and its origins are not clear, but examining these issues is important for U.S. analysts attempting to divine North Korea’s motives for starting the program and what effect, if any, U.S. decisions had on Pyongyang’s actions.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee February 4 that the administration received a National Intelligence Estimate in June 2002 stating that North Korea “had engaged in at least [a research and development] project for highly enriched uranium.” He also stated that intelligence received the next month, however, indicated that North Korea was acquiring “many more [centrifuges] than was originally thought,” adding that a September 2002 intelligence memorandum said that North Korea “had embarked on a production program.”

A November 2002 CIA report to Congress says North Korea “is constructing a [uranium-enrichment] plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons a year when fully operational.” Kelly testified during a March 12 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that the uranium-enrichment program could produce fissile material in “probably…months and not years.”

There are various U.S. government sources that provide clues as to when North Korea began its uranium-enrichment program, but disagreement among the sources makes it difficult to determine the exact start of the program. Most information, however, indicates it began between 1997 and 1999.

Armitage has provided the earliest estimate of the program’s origin, testifying February 4 that the U.S. government noticed “some anomalies in [North Korean] procurement patterns” starting in 1994. Similarly, Secretary of State Colin Powell stated during a March 26 hearing before the House Appropriations Committee that North Korea started the program to enrich uranium “before the ink was dry” on the 1994 Agreed Framework.

A March 17 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report states that the uranium-enrichment program “appears to date from [the end of] 1995,” although it does not cite a source or provide further detail. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, stated in an April 15 interview with Arms Control Today that the program “goes back to about 1998…[but] it may go back earlier than that.”

Powell described a similar, although less precise, timeline in a series of television interviews on December 29, 2002. On NBC’s Meet the Press, he said the program began “four or five years ago, if not earlier.” Contrary to his later comment that North Korea began the program around the time the Agreed Framework was signed, he said on ABC’s This Week that North Korea started the program “in 1998 and 1999.”

The November CIA report to Congress indicates that “North Korea embarked on the effort to develop a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program about two years ago.”

It is also unclear as to when North Korea decided to proceed from a research and development project to building a production facility for uranium enrichment. Armitage argued in his February 4 testimony that North Korea was “intent on going to a full-up production program” from “at least” February 2000—a possible reference to President Bill Clinton’s February 2000 decision not to certify that North Korea “is not seeking to develop or acquire the capability to enrich uranium, or any additional capability to reprocess spent fuel.” Congress had recently passed legislation requiring Clinton to make such a certification before funds could be released to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, which implements the Agreed Framework.

Wendy Sherman, the counselor to the Department of State, explained Clinton’s decision during a March 16, 2000, hearing before the House International Relations Committee, testifying that “the way that that certification is written, it goes to the intention of North Korea…it’s very hard to conceive of what their intentions are.”

An April 2003 CIA report states that the United States “has remained suspicious that North Korea has been working on uranium enrichment for several years,” adding that North Korea “began seeking centrifuge-related materials in large quantities” in 2001 and “obtained equipment suitable for use in uranium feed and withdrawal systems.”

It is interesting to note that the most recent estimates place the program’s origins at an earlier date, perhaps reflecting changes in intelligence assessments.