New York Times
April 18, 2008
By Helene Cooper
WASHINGTON — The Bush administration appears to be preparing to back away from a demand that North Korea fully disclose all of its past nuclear weapons activities, in an attempt to preserve a nuclear agreement requiring it to disclose and dismantle the bulk of its nuclear weapons program.
As described by administration officials on Thursday, the step would relax a demand for North Korea to admit fully that it supplied Syria with nuclear technology. The United States would also agree to postpone its demand that North Korea provide an immediate and full accounting of its fledgling uranium program.
The new stance is intended to help complete a denuclearization deal that would focus instead on North Korea’s more extensive plutonium program, which has been at the heart of its nuclear weapons development and was the source of raw material for the device it tested in October 2006.
The State Department spokesman, Sean D. McCormack, said the emerging agreement would not represent a concession. He said that even if North Korea did not fully account for its uranium efforts, the deal would allow inspectors access to all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities in order to verify that it had stopped its weapons programs.
“There is nothing inevitable about this process, and we are reserving judgment about this declaration until we see it,” Mr. McCormack said. “Every aspect will be subject to verification, and if we detect that they have misled or attempted to mislead, there will be diplomatic consequences.”
The new approach has been endorsed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her chief North Korea negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, an assistant secretary of state, who have argued that getting the plutonium program shut down was better than getting nothing at all, an administration official said. But it is being opposed by conservatives within the administration, including aides to Vice President Dick Cheney, officials said.
“A lot of people will say this falls short of the full confession,” a senior administration official said of what the new approach would demand of North Korea. “They want them to appear in Town Hall and acknowledge that they have sinned. But they weren’t willing to go that far.”
The administration had previously sought full disclosure of North Korea’s role in the Syria program, which a senior administration official said was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in Syria last September.
Under the new approach, the United States and North Korea have settled on fudging the issue, administration officials said. North Korea will “acknowledge” that the United States is concerned about the nuclear proliferation to Syria but will not publicly admit to it. North Korea will also promise not to engage in any more nuclear proliferation, a senior administration official said.
In return, the United States would take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the list of countries noted in the Trading With the Enemy Act.
State Department officials, preparing for a storm of protest from conservatives who complain that such an agreement would be too soft on North Korea, hastened to say on Thursday that the United States would continue to keep a host of economic sanctions against North Korea, including prohibitions on most foreign aid and limitations on trade.
The administration officials who described the new American approach agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, because North Korea had not yet agreed to the deal. Asked on Thursday whether the United States was scaling back its demands, Ms. Rice responded only obliquely.
“We’re going to have to judge whether North Korea has carried out its obligations,” Ms. Rice said during a news conference. “But I will say this: we have a long way to go in terms of all the various statutory sanctions and multilateral and bilateral sanctions that would remain even if the United States were to take the steps that you outlined.”
President Bush appears to be supporting Ms. Rice and Mr. Hill, to the dismay of those who say that the administration, after six years of acting tough on North Korea, is backing down. Defenders of the emerging agreement counter that it would be a mistake to continue a strategy that has yet to produce a lasting deal, and instead allowed North Korea to build up its plutonium stockpile and detonate a nuclear device in 2006.
Part of the problem for Mr. Bush is that the proposed deal, which many foreign policy experts say may be the best the United States can hope for at this point, is being judged by standards set up by Mr. Bush himself.
The White House now finds itself charting a similar course to the one taken by the Clinton administration in striking a deal with North Korea in 1994. That agreement collapsed in 2002 after the Bush White House accused North Korea of secretly continuing work on a nuclear weapon.
Under the new deal, North Korea has agreed to dismantle Yongbyon, as part of an agreement that, like the Clinton deal, envisions that North Korea would ultimately give up all of its nuclear material.
John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and the most outspoken critic of the accord now taking shape, wrote an op-ed column this week in The Wall Street Journal that compared Mr. Bush unfavorably with Ronald Reagan. “His policy regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program looks more like something out of Bill Clinton’s or Jimmy Carter’s playbook,” Mr. Bolton wrote.
The administration is sending a negotiating team next week to try to work with the North Koreans on the details of what exactly North Korea would have to disclose about its plutonium program — and how, under such an agreement.
“We can’t play ‘trust me’ with plutonium,” one senior administration official said. Nuclear experts at the State Department and other agencies are working on a way to make sure that North Korea discloses its entire plutonium program and capacity.
In addition, American officials are pressing North Korea to take steps to alleviate concerns held by Japan, which wants questions resolved about North Korea’s abductions of Japanese citizens.
The issue is scheduled to come up over the weekend when Mr. Bush meets with President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. White House officials say they do not plan to take North Korea at its word.
“No one has let them off the hook,” said Dennis Wilder, special assistant to the president and senior director for East Asian affairs.