Secretary of State Hillary Clinton started her trip to Asia with a stop in Japan. (Photo: Getty Images)
Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska - Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cast doubt Sunday on a claim by the Bush administration that North Korea had a clandestine program to enrich uranium, and she said she will focus on getting the Pyongyang government to give up its stock of weapons-grade plutonium.
"There is a debate within the intelligence community as to exactly the extent of the highly-enriched-uranium program," Clinton told reporters traveling with her to Asia on her first voyage as the chief U.S. diplomat.
In a slap at her predecessors, Clinton made it clear she believes that the Bush administration's decision to walk away from an agreement negotiated during her husband's administration - the 1994 Agreed Framework - helped create the current crisis over North Korea's stash of nuclear weapons.
"The Agreed Framework was torn up on the basis of the concerns about
the highly-enriched-uranium program," Clinton said. "There is no debate that, once the Agreed Framework was torn up, the North Koreans began to reprocess plutonium with a vengeance because all bets were off. The result is they now have nuclear weapons, which they did not have before."
Plutonium and uranium offer different routes to a nuclear weapon. North Korea's plutonium-based reactor at Yongbyon was frozen under the 1994 deal, though there were suspicions that its scientists had extracted enough plutonium for perhaps one or two weapons. When the Agreed Framework collapsed in 2002, North Korea restarted the reactor and obtained enough weapons-grade material for at least a half-dozen weapons.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006, prompting the Bush administration to begin aggressive diplomacy that resulted in the partial dismantlement of the reactor in exchange for energy aid. The aid mirrored what had been provided under the 1994 deal.
The stalled talks over the North Korean program will be a key topic of Clinton's discussions in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing; she is also traveling to Jakarta, Indonesia, during her week abroad.
"My goal is the denuclearization of North Korea," Clinton said. "That means a verifiably complete accounting of whatever programs they have and the removal of the reprocessed plutonium that they were able to achieve because they were given the opportunity to do so."
"When they move forward" on ending the program, she added, "we have a great openness to working with them," including "a willingness to help the people of North Korea."
Clinton's remarks are certain to find favor in Asian capitals, where many officials thought the Bush administration had initially placed too much emphasis on the uranium issue.
After the 2006 test, the Bush administration also de-emphasized the uranium concerns, but senior officials raised it anew in the waning weeks of the administration, saying they had obtained new intelligence that cast doubt on North Korean denials.