The revelation earlier this week that North Korea appears to have developed an indigenous uranium-enrichment capability has bewildered North Korea watchers and the media establishment alike. The question on everyone’s mind: Why didn’t the United States do more to prevent the progress of North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program?
Regrettably, the answer to this question is even more disconcerting than the disclosure itself. Intelligence amassed over the course of nearly two decades on North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program has been an inconvenient truth for most U.S. officials involved in North Korea policy through consecutive U.S. political administrations — but nowhere was this delusion in more abundance than in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration, in which I served as the director for counterproliferation strategy, covering North Korea’s nuclear program on the National Security Council staff in 2006 and 2007.
U.S. officials charged with North Korea policy downplayed or simply ignored intelligence information on uranium-enrichment activities. And this cavalier approach extended beyond the usual State Department negotiators to more senior members of the Bush administration national-security team. Thus it is somewhat surprising to see comments from former senior-level Bush-administration officials in recent days asserting that North Korea’s uranium-enrichment program was a serious concern in the waning years of that administration. The policy pursued by the Bush administration during this time simply does not match this rhetoric.
I visited the Yongbyon nuclear facility in September 2007 as part of an official U.S. delegation to survey and negotiate disablement activities. I was struck immediately by the decrepit and decaying facilities. The reactor operator expressed what seemed to be genuine dismay that he would be unable to restart the reactor following any lengthy shutdown. Undoubtedly, North Korea could muster the technical know-how and manual labor to restart this facility. But the reactor operator’s demeanor suggested that he knew the writing was on the wall: His pride and joy had been relegated to the dustbin of history. I reported this to my colleagues upon returning to Washington. But I didn’t need to travel to Yongbyon to reach this conclusion because it had been clear for some time to me and my colleagues, both at the White House and in the interagency nonproliferation community, that the future of North Korea’s nuclear program rested with its uranium-enrichment capability.
That’s why, in memos and senior-level national-security meetings on North Korea policy, we raised repeatedly the issue of North Korea’s continued uranium-enrichment activities and acquisition efforts. But over and over again our efforts to draw attention to these growing concerns were rebuffed. For a short time, we even deluded ourselves into believing that U.S. insistence on “a full and complete declaration” of North Korea’s nuclear activities would include its uranium-enrichment program as well as its nuclear weapons. But we realized quickly that this “condition” was merely a staid talking point — one among many on a list that was routinely delivered to North Korean officials. The decision by the Bush administration in early 2007 to focus North Korea policy exclusively on the decrepit and aging plutonium-production reactor at Yongbyon as the linchpin of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula was misguided and simply foolish.