Joe DiTrani on the Not-Quite-Agreed Framework and N. Korea’s Uranium Program

[Update: Welcome Think Progress readers.  If you believe that our suspicions about highly-enriched uranium all  rest on slender  aluminum tubes, see also, and see also also.]

Ambassador Joseph DiTrani, formerly a member of Chris Hill’s negotiating team and now the North Korea Mission Manager at the Directorate of National Intelligence, piped up in the Senate today when Sen. Jack Reed asked a fairly obvious question — what has changed since HEU was a deal-breaker in 2002?   His answer, though not earth-shaking, is interesting:

  Jack REED:  Admiral McConnell, we all recall about six years ago when the administration essentially took apart the agreed framework with North Korea.  The major rationale at the time was the discovery of a highly enriched uranium program beyond the plutonium that had been capped, was being inspected by the IAEA.   
 
    Now, we have another agreement.  It looks somewhat like the framework; not entirely, correct.   
 
    But the question remains, what of the HEU, the highly enriched uranium, program?   
 
    Several possibilities exist.  One:  It was never really a real program.  Or something has happened in the interim to change the program.
 
    Can you shed any light on the HEU program and why now we can enter into an agreement with the North Koreans?
 
    MCCONNELL:  No, sir, I cannot personally shed any light, but perhaps my colleagues can.
 
    I know that the primary focus in the current time frame was on the plutonium in the reactor.
 
 
    MCCONNELL:  I don’t personally know and haven’t yet caught up to that intelligence, if it exists, with regard to highly enriched uranium.
 
 
    REED:  I would be happy to have you defer to someone.
 
    DETRANI:  Sir, I would add…
 
    LEVIN:  Could you identify yourself, please?
 
    JOSEPH DETRANI, MISSION MANAGER FOR NORTH KOREA, OFFICE OF THE DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE:  Joseph DeTrani.  I’m the mission manager for North Korea with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
 
    LEVIN:  If you could stand up and talk real loud or…
 
    DETRANI:  Yes, sir.
 
    REED:  Or take the mike here from Dr. Fingar.
 
    DETRANI:  If I might, sir, on the uranium enrichment program in 2002 October, we confronted the North Koreans in Pyongyang with information they were acquiring materials sufficient for a production- scale capability of enriching uranium, which was in violation of the North-South Denuclearization, the NPT, and also the spirit of the agreed framework.
 
    They were confronted with that information in October 2002, and at that time they admitted to having such a program.  And immediately thereafter, that’s when they pulled out of the NPT, they asked the IAEA to leave and so forth.
 
    The U.S. persists in our negotiations with them, saying that we need a declaration that speaks to your acquisitions, that spoke to a production-scale uranium enrichment capability.
 
    My understanding is of the 13 February agreement, this agreement speaks of all nuclear programs.  And, indeed, the North Koreans are very aware of when we speak of all nuclear programs, we are also including their acquisitions of materials necessary for production- scale uranium enrichment program, indeed, which they were making in the late ’90s through the early 2000s.  And we still see elements of that program.

    So the short answer to your question, sir, is that is still on the table, and North Korea still must answer the issue of their acquisitions of materials, to include centrifuges that even President Musharraf in his book speaks to — a few dozen centrifuges, P1 and P2s — that were in violation of all those agreements.  They need to address that issue as part of the denuclearization process.
 
    REED:  How different is that from 2002 when we confronted them and asked them to detail their experiments, their acquisition of centrifuges?  It seems to be equivalent.
 
    DETRANI:  Well, we’ve never walked away from that issue, sir.  We are still looking for them to… 
 
     REED:  But we walked away from the agreed framework?   
 
      DETRANI:  Well, they pulled out of the NPT.  They asked the IAEA to leave, after admitting to having made those acquisitions, sir.
 
    And that’s why the six-party talks kicked in after the three parties met in April of 2003.
 
    REED:  Do you have any further indication of whether that program has progressed in the last six years, one; or two, the evidence — the credibility of the evidence that we had initially, suggesting they had a program rather than aspirations?   
 
    DETRANI:  Sir, we had high confidence.  The assessment was with high confidence that, indeed, they were making acquisitions necessary for, if you will, a production-scale program.
 
    And we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level, yes, sir, absolutely.
 
    REED:  Thank you.

I have to say that the words “mid-level confidence” comfort me more than they may comfort some, though I’ve described the case as “compelling.”  There will be times when  “mid-level confidence” is  the best we can do with regimes and programs this secretive, and why not just be honest about that?  That’s still an unacceptable level of risk when we’re talking about loose HEU.

Thanks to a  friend for sending.

5 comments

  1. Richardson says:

    What I focused on;

    “My understanding is of the 13 February agreement, this agreement speaks of all nuclear programs. And, indeed, the North Koreans are very aware of when we speak of all nuclear programs, we are also including their… uranium enrichment program… to include centrifuges that even President Musharraf in his book speaks to — a few dozen centrifuges, P1 and P2s — that were in violation of all those agreements. They need to address that issue as part of the denuclearization process.

    Today I listened to a speaker discuss how we got pre-war Iraq intel estimates on WMD so wrong. Part of the answer is that Iraq wanted us to believe it (better explained here-PDF).

    The case with North Korea is a bit different, with Pakistan’s independent verification of the deliver of both technology and equipment.

    If North Korea was not able to produce HEU, or did not for some other reason, it is unlikely that they would destroy the associated equipment. IAEA inspectors should be able to determine if it was used, and perhaps if any and how much HEU was produced.

    I suggest we’ll find out after Kim Jong-il dies or North Korea collapses, whatever order that comes in.

  2. usinkorea says:

    And I’ll add a third voice since what caught my eye was something different from the two previous comments:

    the administration essentially took apart the agreed framework with North Korea.

    But we walked away from the agreed framework?

    Since problems with North Korea are pretty much impossible to “solve” – it seems to me a natural tendancy for critics (of all stripes) to focus attention on the side that is more malleable – the democracies – and parties within the democracies.

    So, we end up naturally saying things like it is “we” “we” “we” who cause X, Y, and/or Z to falter.

    It was “we” who drug out feet too much in the 1990s and didn’t capitalize on North Korea’s willingness to change.

    It was “we” who caused the latest nuke crisis.

    That isn’t exactly what is being said or thought. But, it is always hanging in the background, and this focus on why “we” can’t solve the issue ends up giving North Korea the breathing space it needs (plus some)…

  3. […] U.S. officials now admit to having had doubts about North Korea’s HEU program. The North Koreans supposedly admitted to having an HEU programs once in 2002, and since then U.S. officials have said they have so-so confidence in the existence of the program. See also this report of new China media star Chris Hill’s testimony before Congress. Last note: the failure of U.S. intelligence in Iraq has made our claims of North Korean nuclear perdify much less credible. But no one seriously thinks North Korea doesn’t have an HEU program, except maybe Selig Harrison and Bruce Cummings. […]

  4. […] At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) asked intelligence officials to comment on U.S. assessments of North Korean programs to enrich uranium. Joseph DeTrani, the DNI’s mission manager for North Korea walked back previous claims that North Korea had a uranium enrichment program: Sir, we had high confidence. The assessment was with high confidence that, indeed, they were making acquisitions necessary for, if you will, a production-scale [HEU] program. And we still have confidence that the program is in existence — at the mid-confidence level, yes, sir, absolutely. […]

  5. […] This gratuitous editorializing that the intelligence is ”newly murky” really comes down to a single public statement by one person, and it may have been little more than an effort to acknowledge the uncertainties that North Korea has been so good at creating.  That’s a pretty slender reed on which to spin a story as weighty as a centrifuge.  [T]hat ambiguity, officials say, may give North Korea the chance to turn over its equipment with a vague explanation that an effort to produce energy, rather than a bomb, did not work out. […]

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