- The Washington Times - Friday, December 12, 2008
UPDATED:

The Bush administration’s five-year push to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons program collapsed Thursday when U.S.-led talks with the communist regime fell apart in Beijing - leveling another blow against President Bush’s hopes for a signature achievement on his way out of office.

The White House said it would “rethink” its approach to North Korea, which Mr. Bush included as part of the “axis of evil” in 2002 before taking a more diplomatic approach to the country in 2007.

“They should have rethought it about five years ago because these talks were doomed from the outset, and some of us said so,” said John Bolton, a former top-ranking official in the Bush administration who has become one of its loudest critics on this issue.

Pyongyang’s refusal to agree - in writing - to key provisions prompted the abrupt return of U.S. envoy Christopher Hill before the end of the negotiating session.

“We had some very ambitious plans for this round [of negotiations]. Unfortunately, we were not able to complete some of what we wanted to do,” Mr. Hill, an assistant secretary of state, said before leaving Beijing, according to wire service reports.

China was hosting the negotiations as part of the six-party talks, a multilateral process including South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Combined with the failure of Middle East peace talks to produce a hoped-for agreement by the end of this year, Thursday’s events meant that the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will leave office empty-handed after attempting to score high-profile wins on two long-running foreign policy problems.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, an Asian-Pacific affairs analyst at the Brookings Institution, said he hoped that Pyongyang’s isolation would at some point force it to make concessions.

“The North Koreans are digging in again, but I don’t know at what point they may begin to feel that this [intransigence] isn’t going to work that well for them,” Mr. Sonnenfeldt said.

“I would guess the incoming administration will have to go through these talks again,” Mr. Sonnenfeldt said, though he added that the North Koreans likely will “keep fooling around without letting people know what they are going to do.”

The State Department continued to insist, however, that its notes of verbal agreements with North Korean negotiators amount to leverage in talks going forward.

“We have very, very precise notes about those commitments,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. “So we know what was committed to during those discussions.”

But Pyongyang refused to agree formally Thursday to measures, which Mr. Hill said he had earlier this year received assurances on, that could be used to prove that North Korea has stopped production of nuclear weapons.

Mr. McCormack said one key verification measure under dispute would be to allow inspectors to take samples of soil and production materials from facilities.

“The North Koreans don’t want to put into writing what they’ve put into words,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

“Because they decided not to work with us, and the talks have devolved because they wouldn’t put it in writing, we’re going to have to rethink some of this action for action, which is what we had said we would do,” Mrs. Perino said.

The “action for action” strategy was part of an agreement earlier this year that said the U.S. would remove the North Korean regime from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and ship fuel to the region in exchange for an agreement on verification procedures.

Mr. Bush removed Pyongyang from the list in October after Mr. Hill returned from North Korea citing his verbal agreement. The delisting drew the ire of congressional Republicans and the Japanese government, which has grievances with North Korea over its abduction of Japanese citizens.

But Mr. McCormack said the U.S. government was not considering putting Pyongyang back on the list.

“That was an action, again, as I said yesterday, that was based on the law and the facts,” Mr. McCormack said. “This is a process that is action for action. And the North Koreans had made considerable progress on disablement.”

Mr. Bolton, who early on in Mr. Bush’s first term was the top State Department official working on denuclearization and on stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons, said Pyongyang’s obstruction came as “no surprise.”

“I have never believed the North Koreans were going to give up their nuclear program voluntarily. And what they have done is what they have done throughout the nearly 15-year history of negotiations with them on the nuclear issue,” he said.

“And that is they bargain again and again over the same issue. They extract as many concessions as they can from the United States and then they fail to deliver on their commitments,” Mr. Bolton said. “At some point you have to ask when American administrations are going to figure it out.”

Former Secretary of State George Shultz voiced a similar sentiment in a recent interview with Washington Times reporters and editors.

“The North Korean action is part of a pattern in the way they behave. They are endless bargainers. There is no such thing as a firm agreement with them. You make an agreement, you make a compromise, and then they immediately break it in some fashion,” Mr. Shultz said.

The Bush administration began negotiations with North Korea in 2003 within the six-party framework, but it drew the loudest criticism when it agreed in February 2007 to deliver food and fuel aid to North Korea in exchange for the freezing of its programs.

The agreement, which was pushed by Miss Rice in particular, did not address getting North Korea to disclose whether it also had a uranium-based program or weapons and the names of those with whom it had exchanged nuclear technology or materials.

The decision followed the 2005 disclosure that Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan had supplied North Korea with designs and parts to make a nuclear bomb since the early 1990s, and the 2006 testing of a nuclear bomb by the North Korean regime.

Mr. Bolton, who left the administration in December 2006 just before the 2007 agreement, led a chorus of critics who appeared to be vindicated Thursday.

“This is one I’d have to say I’m not very happy I was right on,” Mr. Bolton said. “But I’d also have to say it wasn’t all that hard to figure out.”

Yet some foreign policy scholars maintained that the Bush administration had taken the right path, and had words of praise for its multinational attempt.

“I do agree with the essence of Bush’s recent approach, because even if you are a hawk on North Korea, you need to show the world you tried diplomacy first,” said national security analyst Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. Otherwise, “we can’t apply the kind of tougher sanctions that will be needed to persuade North Korea more effectively in the future.”

China, Mr. Bolton said, is the key to any successful strategy going forward.

“China alone has the power to pressure North Korea by cutting off energy supplies. And if China is really serious that they don’t want North Korea with nuclear weapons, we have to make this a more important issue in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship,” Mr. Bolton said.

Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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