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.