WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 (UPI) -- The United States had firm evidence of North Korea's nuclear program for months and indeed shared the information with Asian allies Japan and South Korea, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
Imagery, signals analysis and other intelligence efforts began turning up clues that North Korea was continuing its efforts to build nuclear weapons before President George Bush came into office. Definitive indicators, however, began to fall into place late this past summer -- after Secretary of State Colin Powell exchanged comments briefly with his North Korean counterpart while attending a conference in Brunei. The meeting, spontaneous and widely marked, suggested the United States was willing to revisit the freeze that had shut down already chilly relations when Bush included the Stalinist country in his "axis of evil" in a speech in January.
One of those definitive indicators was North Korea's efforts to obtain large amounts of an aluminum-based metal. Because of its substantial strength, the aluminum metal is commonly used to construct equipment necessary to process crude uranium into its refined, or weapons-grade, form.
The surprise for the Americans was not that North Korea was trying to enrich uranium but that they admitted it. The U.S. government had been banking on North Korean officials to make their usual and vehement denials -- a record it could then take to allies to justify shutting down further negotiation efforts, according to the Post.
It would not have been the first time that at least some of the allies had been briefed about the dossier of evidence. Contrary to initial reports, South Korea's government was much less than "stunned" when the admission came out Thursday Korean time. The administration of President Kim Dae-jung had learned of the dossier's contents well before their northern neighbor's admission, said the Post, citing government sources in both Washington and Seoul.
The unexpected announcement that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was going on an unprecedented visit to Pyongyang on Sept. 17 reportedly prompted another such briefing. In fact, it was Koizumi's visit that drove the decision in Washington to conduct its own.
Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly flew to the North Korean capital to meet with North Korean officials on Oct. 3-5. He laid out verbally the evidence of the North's nuclear program and first received the denials Washington expected. The next day -- after the North Koreans stayed up all night to discuss options, some accounts have said -- they reversed.
Kelly, who has returned to the region to assess and coordinate international efforts to pressure the North Koreans into compliance, told reporters in Seoul Saturday that "This is not a replay of 1993-1994." He was referring to the 1994 agreement under which North Korea would end its weapons program in exchange for the United States pledging not to make a first strike to destroy its nuclear program and reaching a peace treaty with North Korea that included a formal acknowledgment of North Korea's government regime.
"When I went to North Korea I wanted them to understand just how important we believe this violation of past agreements is," Kelly said. While he vowed to marshal international pressure, he also emphasized there remained "channels of communication should North Korea wish to give us information."