WASHINGTON - In circumstances echoing the Iraq war controversy, hardliners in US President George W. Bush's administration spun intelligence and triggered a nuclear crisis with North Korea, says a new book to be released this week.
Intelligence on a North Korean effort to acquire components for uranium enrichment was politicized to depict the hardline communist state running a full-fledged production facility capable of developing a nuclear bomb, said the book by former senior CNN journalist Mike Chinoy.
Now with the Los Angeles-based Pacific Council on International Policy, Chinoy wrote "Meltdown: The inside story of the North Korean nuclear crisis" after gaining unprecedented access during his 14 trips to North Korea and conducting 200 interviews in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and other Asian capitals.
The book showed that US intelligence did discover in 2002-2003 a North Korean effort to acquire components that could be used for uranium enrichment but that it was only a procurement effort.
There was no credible intelligence that North Koreans actually had a facility capable of making uranium based bombs.
Yet, conservative hardliners bent on ending an "Agreed Framework" nuclear deal with North Korea forged under president Bill Clinton's administration seized on the issue to force a confrontation, the book said.
It added that then US 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 abandon their uranium program before any progress was possible.
He was also ordered not to observe normal diplomatic courtesies such as holding a reciprocal banquet for his North Korean hosts or making a toast at a meal they hosted for him upon his arrival.
It was widely reported then that the North Koreans admitted to Kelly they had an uranium program and this led the United States to take a series of retaliatory steps that led to a downward spiral in ties and Pyongyang restarting its nuclear program and testing the bomb in 2006.
But Chinoy, who interviewed most of the members of Kelly's delegation, said he could not find any evidence that the North Koreans explicitly admitted having such a program.
"It's interesting that the transcript remains classified but it appears that a North Korean offical used much more ambiguous language and also tabled an offer to negotiate -- which Kelly rejected," he told AFP.
"There are parallels and differences obviously with the way the intelligence became a source of controversy in Iraq but unlike Iraq, the actual intelligence that the Americans had in North Korea in the spring and summer of 2002 was pretty solid," Chinoy said.
"But the combination of internal politics and media generalization...created an impression that it was somewhat different from the reality," he said.
Colin Powell, the US secretary of state at that time who discovered he had used questionable American intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction ahead of the Iraq invasion in 2003, also found himself in a predicament with intelligence on North Korea.
"They wanted to use this as a flaming red star cluster into the sky that the North Koreans cheated, abrogated the Agreed Framework, 'we always told you this was a bad idea,'" Powell said of the hardline opponents of engagement with North Korea.
The 405-page book also documents in more detail than has previously been available how the stunning turnaround in policy toward North Korea took place under the second term of the Bush administration.
It showed how Kelly's successor Christopher Hill seized control of the policy process -- first, by violating instructions from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and holding unauthorized bilateral meetings with the North Koreans, and then, after winning her over to his side, by freezing out hard-line opponents of engagement, including critics in Vice President Dick Cheney's office.
Hill helped reinvigorate six-nation talks that led to North Korea shutting down and disabling its key nuclear plant in Yongbyon from where plutonium was produced to make bombs.
The Bush administration is currently prodding North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and surrender all its nuclear weapons in return for normalized ties and security guarantees.
"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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