U.S.’s Misinterpreted Intelligence Triggered N. Korea Nuclear Crisis

Bush Administration hardliners reportedly spun intelligence that triggered a nuclear crisis with North Korea and led to a nuclear bomb testing by Pyongyang, a situation just like the intelligence controversy of the Iraq war, says a new book to be released this week.

Just like a reprint of Iraq war intelligence controversy

The author of the book, Mike Chinoy, a former senior CNN journalist, pointed out that the intelligence on North Korea’s efforts to acquire components for uranium was politicized to accuse this hard-line communist state of being capable of developing a nuclear bomb.

Disclosure of the inside story

Now, as a researcher of the Los-Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy, Mike Chinoy wrote the book “Meltdown: The inside story of the North Korea nuclear crisis” after paying 14 visits to North Korea and conducting 200 interviews in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and other Asian capitals.

The book points out that U.S. intelligence did discover a North Korea effort to acquire the enriched uranium components in 2002-2003, but it was only a procurement effort. There was no credible intelligence that demonstrated North Korea had a facility capable of making uranium bombs. Nevertheless, conservative hardliners in the Bush administration decided to terminate an “Agreed Framework” nuclear deal with North Korea signed under President Bill Clinton’s administration in an attempt to use the issue as a pretext to provoke a confrontation.

All pointing to the Bush administration’s plot

The book reveals that then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was given instructions not to negotiate on his October 2002 trip to Pyongyang but simply tell the North Koreans they had to give up the uranium program. It was widely reported then that the North Koreans admitted to Kelly they had a uranium program and this led the U.S. to take a series of retaliatory steps that consequently led to deterioration of ties between the two sides. Then Pyongyang restarted its nuclear program and tested the bomb in 2006.

But Chinoy said he could not find any evidence that the North Koreans explicitly admitted having such a program after interviewing most of Kelly’s delegation members. “It’s interesting that the transcript remains classified but it appears that a North Korean official used much more ambiguous language and also tabled an offer to negotiate – which Kelly rejected,” he said. The situation is unlike Iraq, the actual intelligence that the Americans had in North Korea was pretty reliable, “But the combination of internal politics and media generalization…created an impression that it was somewhat different from the reality,” Chinoy added.

The 405-page book also documents in detail the dramatic change in policy toward North Korea under the second term of the Bush administration. It showed how Kelly’s successor Christopher Hill gained control of the policy. First, he violated instructions from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and held unauthorized bilateral talks with the North Korea, and then, successfully won Rice’s support by freezing out hard-line opponents of engagement, including critics in Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office. Hill has finally helped materialize the shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear plant.

“There is an irony here that the hardliners’ attempt to pressure the North Koreans to give up the bomb, in fact, created circumstances where the North became a nuclear power and made the whole process of undoing their nuclear program much, much harder than had they adopted a similar approach at the beginning,” Chinoy said.

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