updated 12/10/2004 9:34:04 PM ET 2004-12-11T02:34:04

The U.S. government exaggerated the threat from North Korea’s nuclear programs, just as it manipulated intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a U.S. foreign policy expert says.

Selig Harrison said in an article published Friday that the Bush administration claimed that Pyongyang was on its way to producing weapons-grade uranium to scare allies into a tougher stance on the communist nation.

But by failing to distinguish between civilian and military uranium-enrichment capabilities, Washington greatly complicated the already complex efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions, Harrison wrote in the Dec. 17 issue of Foreign Affairs.

‘Worst-case scenario’
“Relying on sketchy data, the Bush administration presented a worst-case scenario as an incontrovertible truth and distorted its intelligence on North Korea (much as it did on Iraq), seriously exaggerating the danger that Pyongyang is secretly making uranium-based nuclear weapons,” he said.

Harrison, the director of the Asia Program and chairman of the Task Force on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, said the Bush administration hoped to scare Japan and South Korea away from taking a conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang.

Harrison’s article was posted on Foreign Affairs’ Web site Friday.

A new nuclear crisis flared on the Korean Peninsula in late 2002 when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on a visit to Pyongyang accused North Korea of running a clandestine program to enrich uranium.

Washington punished North Korea by cutting off free oil shipments it promised under a 1994 nuclear arms control agreement that froze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program using reprocessed plutonium, another means to create an atomic bomb.

Pyongyang retaliated, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting its plutonium facilities. It has since denied having a uranium program and accused Washington of “cooking up” the allegation.

No breakthroughs in six-nation talks
The United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of six-nation talks since last year to persuade the North into scrapping its suspected nuclear facilities. No breakthroughs have been made.

Harrison said there is no clear evidence to support a November 2002 CIA report’s conclusion that North Korea was “constructing a plant that could produce enough weapons-grade uranium for two or more weapons per year when fully operational, which could be as soon as mid-decade.”

Pyongyang also is faced with technical constraints and may be only trying to make low-enriched uranium to use as a power source, Harrison wrote.

By scuttling the 1994 agreement and insisting that North Korea confess to the existence of a uranium program, the U.S. government has blocked action on the one threat North Korea is known to pose — that from reprocessed plutonium that would be used in weapons, Harrison said.

North Korea is believed to have reprocessed enough of its spent fuel rods to extract plutonium for at least two or three bombs.

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