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U.S. urged to reassess claim against North Korea
ABC News/Reuters
By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent
February 21, 2007

Feb 21, 2007 — WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should reexamine a questionable charge that North Korea has a covert uranium enrichment program, a key American complaint against Pyongyang that could complicate the new nuclear weapons deal, experts said on Wednesday.

Physicist David Albright, who recently visited the isolated communist state, likened the enrichment program charge to the "fiasco" of flawed U.S. intelligence that mistakenly concluded Iraq had a secret nuclear weapons program in the runup to war.

The CIA in 2002 said North Korea began purchasing large quantities of centrifuge-related equipment in 2001 and was building a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more nuclear weapons annually, perhaps by 2005.

Albright told a news conference "it may be another case of lack of evidence" because there has been no recent data to support the claim and the North may not have built the plant.

"It's long overdue for the United States to revisit that assessment," added Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security.

But a U.S. official told Reuters: "There's a strong body of evidence they had made an effort to develop an industrial-scale (enrichment) program. How far they've gotten — we can debate that. How much we can prove — that's another question."

Although U.S. officials said North Korea initially acknowledged the uranium program during a 2002 meeting, Pyongyang has since denied its existence.

Under a breakthrough deal last week, the North agreed to seal its main nuclear reactor and the source of its publicly acknowledged weapons-grade plutonium in return for an initial 50,000 tons of fuel or equivalent economic aid.

MAJOR CHALLENGE

The agreement requires North Korea to declare its nuclear activities. This will be a major challenge because, if the uranium enrichment program is not included, the deal could run aground, the U.S. official said.

Albright said that during recent talks in Pyongyang, senior North Korean officials continued to deny the enrichment program but told him and Asia expert Joel Wit they were willing to resolve the issue because it soured relations with Washington.

"We need clarity on the extent of the North Korean program. It cannot be swept under the rug," another U.S. official said.

At the news conference and in a new report, Albright said North Korea can make a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on missiles capable of hitting all of South Korea and most of Japan. He also said the impoverished state had separated enough plutonium for five to 12 nuclear weapons.

Many proliferation experts doubt North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile and Albright acknowledged many Asian governments disputed his findings.

But he said Pyongyang probably obtained technology from the nuclear black market of rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and had been working for years to put a crude nuclear warhead on a Nodong missile.

Wit called the nuclear deal "a good step forward" but said "there is a serious risk of failure … (that could lead to a) dangerous crisis" because the agreement is so complicated.

He urged the United States to lead the process going forward and work hard at improving diplomatic relations with Pyongyang because this will help smooth over the inevitable future rough patches.

Copyright 2007 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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