In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.
But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride — which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium — to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.
Pakistan’s role as both the buyer and the seller was concealed to cover up the part played by Washington’s partner in the hunt for al Qaeda leaders, according to the officials, who discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity. In addition, a North Korea-Pakistan transfer would not have been news to the U.S. allies, which have known of such transfers for years and viewed them as a business matter between sovereign states.
The Bush administration’s approach, intended to isolate North Korea, instead left allies increasingly doubtful as they began to learn that the briefings omitted essential details about the transaction, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said in interviews. North Korea responded to public reports last month about the briefings by withdrawing from talks with its neighbors and the United States.
In an effort to repair the damage, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is traveling through East Asia this weekend trying to get the six-nation talks back on track. The impasse was expected to dominate talks today in Seoul and then Beijing, which wields the greatest influence with North Korea.
The new details follow a string of controversies concerning the Bush administration’s use of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in March 2003, the White House offered a public case against Iraq that concealed dissent on nearly every element of intelligence and included interpretations unsupported by the evidence.