North Korea's uranium enrichment program first made headlines in October 2002, when then U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs James Kelly visited Pyongyang.
When Kelly raised suspicions about the program, first North Korean vice foreign minister Kang Sok-ju, now a vice premier, reportedly said Pyongyang has "the right" to carry out the program and "make more powerful weapons."
This sparked what is known as the second North Korean nuclear crisis. But in January 2003 it suddenly denied it has such a program, starting off a tedious series of claims and counterclaims that saw the issue mostly kept off the table during six-party nuclear talks.
Ahead of the presidential election in 2002, South Korean left-wingers took sides with the North and said the program was invented by neocons in the U.S. to ratchet up tensions. Some blamed the American interpreter for mishearing the original admission.
Yet all members of the U.S. delegation, which included Jack Prichard, a nuclear envoy, and David Straub, the director of the State Department's Korea desk, as well as Kelly himself were dovish officials who were opposed to neocons' hardline policy. They had no reason to distort the statement at the time.
The Roh Moo-hyun administration also dismissed the threat. Unification minister Lee Jae-joung told the National Assembly in July 2007 there were "no intelligence reports" that the North has uranium enrichment program. Foreign minister Song Min-soon also said "even a mere conceptual design on a sheet of paper" could be described as a uranium enrichment "program."
But early this month, a U.S. nuclear expert took a first-hand look at hundreds of centrifuges for uranium enrichment in the North.
"Since the latter part of the 1990s, the North has persistently carried out a uranium enrichment program while importing centrifuges from Pakistan," a South Korean security official said. "As a result of the former administrations' deliberate disregard to it for 10 years under the Sunshine Policy, the crisis is now coming to a head."