Washington, Feb 16: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has told reporters on her first trip abroad that she doubts whether North Korea's uranium enrichment program is really a threat to the rest of the world as is being made out.
Beginning a trip to Asia on Sunday, Feb 15 Clinton told media persons accompanying her on the flight to Tokyo, Japan, that North Korea's effort to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons should not have been used as a pretext to scrap a 1994 deal to freeze Pyongyang's plutonium program.
The accord, negotiated by the Clinton administration, was effectively killed after the Bush administration said in 2002 that it had intelligence of a North Korean program for highly enriched uranium.
At the time, Washington accused Pyongyang of nullifying the Agreed Framework by cheating with the uranium effort, while the North said the U.S. was to blame for the deal's collapse.
The Washington Times quoted Clinton as saying that there was never enough evidence to conclude that the secret program posed sufficient threat to justify abandoning a deal that prevented the North from building plutonium-based weapons.
The deal was scrapped on the basis of concerns about the highly enriched uranium program, she said.
"There is a debate within the intelligence community as to exactly the extent of [that] program. 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, and the result is that they now have nuclear weapons, which they didn't have before," Clinton said.
According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the North had reprocessed enough plutonium for up to two nuclear weapons before the 1994 deal was reached. Since 2002, that number has been put at more than a dozen.
Clinton also said that talks, which also include Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, would continue.
She said she would discuss ways to resume them in her meetings with officials in Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing during her trip. She also will visit Indonesia. She made a refueling stop in Alaska on her way to Tokyo.