The confirmed report by a visiting American scientist that North Korea has constructed a facility at its Yongbyon nuclear complex to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU), apparently for use in a nuclear weapon, led Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen to tell ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that the disclosure "validates a longstanding concern."
Yet that "long-standing concern" was evidently not shared at the top echelons of the State Department just twenty months ago. In my interview with her in South Korea, conducted shortly after she took office, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed doubt that the North even had an HEU program.
"I think that there is a sense, among many who have studied this, that there may be some program somewhere, but no one can point to any specific location nor can they point to any specific outcome of whatever might have gone on, if anything did," Clinton told Fox News in an on-camera interview in Seoul on February 20, 2009.
"Do I believe," Clinton continued, "that the North Koreans, if they could engage in producing highly enriched uranium, would attempt to do so? I mean, that seems to be their nuclear ambition. I don't have any doubt that they would try whatever they possibly could. Have they? I don't know that and nobody else does, either."
However, despite Secretary Clinton's skepticism, many current and former officials at the outset of the Obama administration, as well as many independent analysts, contended at the time that there was ample evidence that North Korea had an HEU program.
Former Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who was the Bush administration's point man on North Korea and later served as ambassador to Iraq under President Obama, told a Washington think tank audience in February 2008 that U.S. intelligence had detected the North's purchase of special aluminum tubes from Germany. The tubes were for use in HEU-related centrifuges.
Six days later, on February 27, 2008 -- almost a full year before my interview with Secretary Clinton -- Hill publicly testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee: "We know from the Pakistanis that [the North Koreans] bought these centrifuges. There's no other purpose for a centrifuge of that kind than to produce highly enriched uranium."
And in November 2008, senior Bush administration officials were briefed on the discovery of traces of HEU that were found on aluminum tubes that North Korean officers had (inexplicably) turned over to Western nuclear inspectors.
All of this information was presumably available to Secretary Clinton when I interviewed her; indeed, I had reported it publicly on Fox News and in other outlets. (And Chris Hill, of course, remained in a high-ranking position at State.) Yet when I asked her whether she believed North Korea was pursuing an HEU program, Clinton shrugged off all this evidence by referring dismissively to "whatever might have gone on, if anything did." This hardly gibes with the "longstanding concern" described by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on Sunday.
Finally: I reported on June 11, 2009, both in live shots and a package on Fox News as well as on foxnews.com, that senior U.S. intelligence officials had directly warned President Obama that very day that the regime in Pyongyang was planning "a major escalation in the North's uranium enrichment program."