- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Bush administration’s inability to get North Korean promises in writing has become the latest problem threatening to torpedo nuclear disarmament talks between Pyongyang and Washington. Together with reports that North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il may have suffered a stroke, the latest disarmament impasse adds a new element of uncertainty to the administration’s efforts to end North Korean atomic-weapons programs.

The State Department says it verbally communicated to North Korea that in order to be removed from the U.S. terrorism list, there would have to be agreement on a plan to verify that the communist regime had disarmed. The administration had proposed a nuclear verification plan in which North Korea would agree to give inspectors substantial access to nuclear facilities and staff. The Washington Times reported in July that the nuclear plan does not include a timeline for actually completing the verification process. But North Korea nonetheless balked at verification proposals that included testing samples from its nuclear reactor, reprocessing and storage facilities.

Mr. Kim’s government says that chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill promised that North Korea would be removed from the U.S. terrorism list once it submitted its declaration of its nuclear activities (in other words, before any verification plan was agreed to). But Mr. Hill said last week that Pyongyang would be removed “immediately” upon agreeing to the verification plan - in other words, before the truthfulness of North Korean declarations could actually be verified. The failure to get the details in writing makes it impossible to know precisely what the United States and North Korea agreed to. “You need everything spelled out, so they don’t try to get out of the deal,” said Gary Samore, a former National Security Council official during the Clinton administration. “[I]f it’s not in writing, they will exploit every ambiguity.”

The Bush administration, however, had good reason not to insist that Pyongyang put its disarmament commitments in writing - first and foremost the likelihood that North Korea would have refused to do so and ended the negotiations right there. So, instead, the administration (and the State Department in particular) has opted for a policy of ambiguity when it comes to dealing with North Korea. This strategy offers huge political benefits: By relying on oral agreements and not insisting that North Korea put its promises in writing, Washington can minimize the likelihood of public confrontations with the volatile Mr. Kim. Unfortunately, as the State Department is learning the hard way, it also creates perverse incentives for Pyongyang to agree to something and deny it later when it suits the Stalinist regime’s purposes.

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