Oct. 17, 2002: Axis of Evil

Details of North Korea's covert nuclear weapons program emerge.
7:24 | 10/15/11

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Transcript for Oct. 17, 2002: Axis of Evil
Years ago George -- crafted their comedy routine around the TV weatherman. -- was checking out the radar warning of threatening thunderstorms. When He spotted some incoming Soviet IC branch. Well He -- I guess we don't have to swept the thunderstorms. Hughes broke last night that doesn't quite fall into that category but almost. The north Koreans it turns out -- violated an existing agreement with the United States and have in fact been developing nuclear weapons. A senior North Korean official admitted as much in the meeting earlier this month when our assistant secretary of state James Kelly. It's not altogether clear whether they already -- such weapons but the implication was that they do. And they were belligerent not apologetic about it. In case you've forgotten President Bush singled out North Korea together with a -- in Iran as part of the so called axis of evil. The Bush Administration has been arguing the urgency of taking action against Iraq. Precisely because it doesn't yet have nuclear weapons but very likely could in another couple of years. Perhaps the north Koreans worried that the United States might be considering preemptive military action against them. Perhaps they are playing their nuclear card as a warning. In any event like Iraq and North Korea has a tyrannical leader and a brutal regime. With a history of supporting terrorism. They also have intermediate range missiles and are working on the Intercontinental -- variety. Do they in fact have atomic weapons the CIA believes that they do. A little later in this broadcast I'll be talking to the president's national security advisor Condoleezza Rice. But first here's Nightline correspondent John -- What we do then it was 1994. Was that the north Koreans had made a deal this agreement. We'll help to achieve a longstanding and vital American objective. And into the threat of nuclear proliferation. On the Korean Peninsula. What we know now is that the north Koreans have been running a secret nuclear weapons program. For some undetermined period of time. This is some serious violation of the agreed framework. The fact that north Koreans acknowledged a program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Constitutes a serious violation of the agreed framework. The administration has had several days to digest this information phase in which the president won a vote in congress giving him clearance to wage war on. You run its. In fact the US envoy who first heard this from the north Koreans in person on October 4. Spoke to reporters on October 5 in South Korea and He did know He was talking about these diplomats vocabulary didn't give much away. I felt that our exchanges in Pyongyang where frank. As befits the seriousness of our differences and they were useful to. But now it is out North Korea is admitting to doing exactly that thing the president can only accused Saddam Hussein of working on nuclear weapons. In a perverse way maybe it would be easier right now at least more convenient for the White House. If the north Koreans had not come clean it kept up the deception. Which it almost seems is what was expected of them. I would say over the summer. Our analysts. Became convinced because of a growing body of evidence that North Korea was pursuing. He Covert secret. A Covert uranium enrichment program content. There are a lot of reasons that this is a bad time from the US perspective for the north Koreans to be coming clean on this. One of them is that President Bush according to his aides was about to take what they call bold approach to improving the relationship with North Korea. And then this happened. A bold approach would also have been a new approach in his State of the Union Address this year the president put North Korea unnoticed. It was on a short list now. States like these. And their terrorist allies. Constitute an axis of evil. Arming to threaten the peace of the world. The Bush Administration. Was never enthusiastic about the relationship with North Korea that it inherited from the Clinton administration. Under those terms the US was committed. To sending the north Koreans free oil and free food in exchange for North Korea dismantling one nuclear reactor flocking away it's available plutonium. And allowing inspectors to verify. Us to the bush team this smacked of appeasement. Today were determined to come in and do two things one ignore North Korea not. We ward there there belligerent actions -- an attention getting devices and then to take a very tough and demanding line. Been forced to -- -- -- only says that Clinton's agreement did slow down North Korea's weapons development program. Don't get me wrong and then He agreed framework has. Has worked they have not been producing plutonium. Since -- 1994 they could have. Fifty bombs worth of material now if it weren't for that agreement but on the side they've been developing a backup plan. And that's another reason this does not come at a good time. If all bets are off the north Koreans can go back to using the plutonium -- locked away under the deal to start making weapons that will get them -- faster. This when the president is concerned about nuclear weapons reaching the hands of terrorists. But the main problem right now is figuring out what this does to the campaign against Iraq. For example if Saddam faces a possible war for instance how does the administration justify anything less for North Korea. And -- Campbell was a deputy assistant Defense Secretary in the Clinton administration. It becomes very difficult for them to engage in diplomacy. At the same time that they're saying that this very diplomacy is impossible. With Iraq. You hear frequently from Bush Administration officials that moral clarity in terms of dealing. With these who despise regimes is absolutely critical in terms of keeping the high ground. But what about military action with North Korea anyone you -- calls it a potential nightmare. North Korea has the world's fifth largest army and it is now assumed. Nuclear weapons. You cannot contemplate war in North Korea. Without the certain. Recognition that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans will die. The north remains in enigma desperately poor politically of prison for almost anyone who lives there. Yet lately its leaders have taken steps to end their isolation. And of this admission about its nuclear program what is your theory on what the north Koreans were doing by coming clean. We. Honestly don't have enough information to understand North Korean motives was this and there. We have a nuclear weapons program what are you going to do about it or was this an an admission hoping for a breakthrough. Whatever the motive the north Koreans have set off alarms here in the nation's capital. One more crisis on a pile of them for an administration that wants to focus on one problem. And that is called Iraq. I'm John Donvan for Nightline in Washington.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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