U.S. intel on N. Korea uranium wanes

April 24, 2007 at 4:37 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 24 (UPI) -- The U.S. intelligence community is less confident now than five years ago that North Korea has a program to highly enrich uranium.

In 2002 the world learned that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan and his network provided centrifuges to North Korea -- a necessary component to any program to produce weapons-grade uranium. That led to North Korea admitting to its program. It was known previously that North Korea was reprocessing plutonium -- the uranium was a new capability.

"The several engagements that the United States has had with the North Koreans ... gave us at one time high confidence that they were seeking to develop a highly enriched uranium program," Gen. Burwell Bell III, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said Tuesday.

Bell said the U.S. intelligence community still believes North Korea is trying to enrich uranium, but there is no evidence the program has grown since 2002.

"Since those days about five years ago, the proclamations and the evidence of a continuation of a highly enriched uranium program have been sparse," he said. "It is my understanding from the intelligence community it is a moderate confidence level today."

North Korea was supposed to shut down its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon two weeks ago but balked, demanding that $25 million in frozen funds being held at the Banco Delta Asia be released.

The United States agreed to release the funds, and they are now available, Bell said. "I believe ... it is acceptable that we give them more time to sort out the physics of how they'll get this money. They are not experienced in international banking. ... So I think we should give them a little longer and see how it works," he said.

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