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US Again Says N. Korea Admitted to Enriching Uranium

The Bush administration reiterated Thursday that North Korea admitted in 2002 that it had a uranium-enrichment program. The North Korean admission led to the breakdown of a 1994 nuclear freeze accord, which has now been superceded by a multi-lateral disarmament deal. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The North Korean enrichment effort may be just a historical footnote, given Pyongyang's agreement at the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks last month to scrap its nuclear program.

But the Bush administration is reaffirming its stand that the program existed, and that Pyongyang admitted it in 2002, amid reports of disagreement in the U.S. intelligence community about the extent of the North Korean enrichment effort.

The North Korean admission to a senior U.S. envoy in late 2002 led to the breakdown of the 1994-agreed framework with the Clinton administration, under which North Korea was to have frozen its nuclear program in exchange for energy aid including two nuclear power plants.

The issue came under renewed focus this week when a U.S. intelligence expert on North Korea, Joseph DiTrani, told a congressional panel that officials are not highly confident that Pyongyang ever produced uranium suitable for a bomb.

The comments, and similar remarks by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, led to charges by some analysts that the Bush administration may have exaggerated evidence of the program to scuttle the Clinton-era agreement.

In a talk with reporters, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that while intelligence officials may have varying analyses, the fact remains that Pyongyang admitted the program during an October 2002 visit by U.S. envoy James Kelly.

"I will say that again today, that they admitted to having a program in 2002. And I can refer to a public-source document, [Pakistani] President Musharraf's book. He said that A.Q. Khan sold them centrifuges," McCormack said. "And A.Q. Khan, I remind you, didn't deal in civil nuclear programs. And these kinds of centrifuges are not meant as ice-cream cone makers."

Pakistani President Musharraf said in a published memoir last year that the now-defunct nuclear smuggling ring of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan sold North Korea 20 centrifuges for refining uranium.

Most experts agree that the nuclear device North Korea detonated last October, and others it may have, were made with plutonium harvested from its Yongbyon reactor complex, rather than enriched uranium.

Under the agreement reached last month at the six-party nuclear talks, North Korea is to shut down the Yongbyon site in exchange for emergency energy aid.

Over the long term, North Korea is to account for and irreversibly end all its nuclear programs in exchange for a million tons of fuel oil or equivalent aid, and various other incentives, including normal relations with the United States.

Spokesman McCormack said regardless of the circumstances of the failure of the 1994 nuclear freeze, the world community is in a much better position to realize the goal of a denuclearized Korean peninsula now than it was when the prior accord was in effect.

North Korea's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-Kwan, is due to meet in New York early next week with his U.S. counterpart, Assistant Secretary Hill, to set up a working group on normalizing relations as provided for in the February 13th Beijing agreement.