The White House yesterday said that North Korea's delays in detailing its nuclear-weapons program have made the U.S. skeptical of Pyongyang's pledge to give up its nuclear weapons.
North Korea agreed in October to declare its full range of nuclear activities and weapons by Dec. 31, but has yet to make any announcement.
"They were a part of the agreement that established this deadline, and we don't have reason to believe that they won't, but we are skeptical, given the length of time that it's taken," said White House press secretary Dana Perino, in a morning briefing.
Later in the day, Mrs. Perino said that "as we've dealt with North Korea over the past several years, it is only appropriate that we would be skeptical."
Former Bush administration official John R. Bolton, who headed the State Department's counterproliferation office in President Bush's first term, called Mrs. Perino's comments "a shift, and a welcome one" in the White House position toward North Korea.
Mr. Bolton has been critical of the agreement reached last February, and expanded upon in October, for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il to give up his nuclear-weapons program.
"I have faith in the North Koreans that they're going to do what they always do," Mr. Bolton said yesterday, referring to several failed deals in the past. "I don't think there's any chance they're ever going to give up their nuclear weapons."
The State Department, however, reacted positively yesterday to North Korea's failure to meet the deadline agreed to in talks with the U.S. and four other countries — South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the disarmament process is still "trending in the right direction," and said it is understandable that the North Koreans missed the Dec. 31 deadline because the decision to disarm is "groundbreaking."
"Everybody has a healthy appreciation for the pace at which this process moves," Mr. McCormack said. "Sometimes it moves according to schedule, sometimes it moves in what some might consider a tectonic or glacial fashion, but it does move forward. But the fact that it doesn't progress at the pace that we would perhaps desire doesn't mean that people aren't working hard to ... try to make it work."
Mr. Bolton said the State Department is "in deal-saving mode."
But the Bush administration, despite its rhetoric yesterday, might also be poised to accept an imperfect outcome, said Jon Wolfsthal, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"They're walking a fine line. They want to avoid a crisis with North Korea," Mr. Wolfsthal said. "There's some concern that because they want to keep this on the back burner they might be willing to accept less than 100 percent to keep the process going on."
Mr. Wolfsthal said that the administration has focused most on political reconciliation in Iraq and has pushed the North Korean nuclear program to the second tier.
The North Koreans have begun to receive food and oil aid as they have begun the disarmament process, but they are pressing for removal from the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism.