On November 12, North Korean scientists took Stanford professor Siegfried Hecker and two colleagues to the Yongbyon nuclear complex. The North Koreans led the Americans to a building that Hecker, former head of the Los Alamos nuclear laboratories, had visited in February 2008. The structure had been transformed into a “stunning” uranium enrichment facility, Hecker would later write.
That revelation brings to an end the long-running debate inside the U.S. intelligence community over whether the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has an active uranium enrichment program. North Korea acknowledged that it had such an effort back in 2002. But the North Koreans later claimed their admission was a misunderstanding. And in the years since, the intelligence community has had little knowledge of the North Korean nuclear program—it is, after all, the most secretive project of the world’s most secretive regime. There was no fresh intelligence to cast doubt on the program’s continued existence, because there was little new information about the program at all.
This absence of evidence led to a split in the U.S. intelligence community. The State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), along with analysts at the Department of Energy, voiced strong skepticism about the existence of a North Korean enrichment program. But others, most notably analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency and most of the leadership at the CIA, were convinced that enrichment work was continuing. By 2007, the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community on the existence of an enrichment program was downgraded from “high-confidence” to “mid-confidence,” and pro-engagement policymakers were comparing the worrisome intelligence on North Korea to prewar intelligence on Iraq.
Meanwhile, Bush administration policymakers eager for engagement with North Korea—led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and functionary Christopher Hill—downplayed the likelihood of DPRK enrichment efforts and mocked those who worried about them. “Some people imagine there is a building somewhere with a secret door they can open and find a group of scantily clad women enriching uranium,” Hill commented.
Well, we don’t know about the women. But just two months after Hill’s dismissive comments, the evidence of a secret enrichment program continued to build. In June 2008, North Korea presented documents to the United States that were intended to verify the DPRK’s claims regarding plutonium production. In an underappreciated irony, analysts found traces of highly enriched uranium on the 18,000 pages of materials. The CIA and DIA argued that the new evidence confirmed their suspicions. INR and DOE found reasons to doubt it.
Stephen Hadley, national security adviser under George W. Bush, mentioned the dispute in a little-noticed speech he delivered two weeks before leaving office. In his remarks, Hadley warned that North Korea would be “an early challenge” for the Obama administration. “This is especially true because some in the intelligence community have increasing concerns that North Korea has an ongoing covert uranium enrichment program.” Originally intended for use in a speech by President Bush, this carefully vetted claim, coming from the preternaturally cautious Hadley, raised eyebrows among Korea-watchers. The White House meant it as a marker—something that would provide an official, on-the-record indication of the state of intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear program.
It was also an incongruous coda to four years of failed engagement with a rogue regime. During that time, North Korea had tested a crude nuclear weapon and been caught red-handed providing assistance to Syria, a leading state sponsor of terror, in the construction of a nuclear reactor. And yet, after stern denunciations, Bush officials had continued to reward North Korea’s occasional, symbolic diplomatic gestures with bilateral meetings and relief from sanctions.
Which brings us to the current impasse. On November 23, 2010, just two days after the DPRK’s uranium enrichment program was revealed in the pages of the New York Times, North Korea launched an unprovoked, 50-minute artillery barrage on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong that killed two South Korean marines, two civilians, and injured dozens of others. The Obama administration expressed concern about the nuclear revelations and condemned the attacks. A White House official told ABC’s Jake Tapper that the administration would not be “rushing into six-party talks” with North Korea because “we see that as rewarding bad behavior.”
Not rewarding bad behavior is good. Punishing bad behavior? That’s better.