- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

UPDATED:

ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, beginning a trip to Asia on Sunday, expressed doubts about the threat posed by North Korea’s effort to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, saying it should not have been used as a pretext to scrap a 1994 deal to freeze Pyongyang’s plutonium program.

The accord, negotiated by the Clinton administration, was effectively killed after the Bush administration said in 2002 that it had intelligence of a North Korean program for highly enriched uranium.

At the time, Washington accused Pyongyang of nullifying the Agreed Framework by cheating with the uranium effort, while the North said the U.S. was to blame for the deal’s collapse.

Mrs. Clinton said there was never enough evidence to conclude that the secret program posed sufficient threat to justify abandoning a deal that prevented the North from building plutonium-based weapons.

“The North Korean nuclear weapons program is based on their reprocessing of plutonium, which they began to do in earnest after the Agreed Framework was torn up,” she told reporters traveling with her on her first trip since becoming secretary of state.

The deal was scrapped “on the basis of concerns about the highly enriched uranium program,” she said.

“There is a debate within the intelligence community as to exactly the extent of [that] program,” she added. “There is no debate that, once the Agreed Framework was torn up, the North Koreans began to reprocess plutonium with a vengeance, because all bets were off, and the result is that they now have nuclear weapons, which they didn’t have before.”

According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the North had reprocessed enough plutonium for two nuclear weapons before the 1994 deal was reached. Since 2002, that number has been put at more than a dozen.

Even though the Bush administration initially said the program provided enough reason to scrap the accord, some officials began to reveal in recent years that there was no agreement about the extent of the effort among intelligence agencies. The administration did not let the issue derail negotiations with the North on dismantling its plutonium program.

Meanwhile, North Korea suggested Monday that it is preparing a rocket launch, saying it has the right to “space development,” a term Pyongyang has used in the past to disguise a long-range missile test as a satellite launch, the Associated Press reported.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) made the suggestion on the 67th birthday of leader Kim Jong-il.