- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

The Bush administration may have contributed to the latest impasse with North Korea by failing to get a written agreement that links Pyongyang’s removal from the U.S. terrorist blacklist to a plan to verify the country’s nuclear disarmament.

After insisting for weeks that North Korea “knows what it needs to do” to be taken off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, U.S. officials said that they “communicated” the precondition verbally.

“We communicated to them that we attach great importance to a verification mechanism,” said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, adding that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had stated that publicly as well.

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“We will have to know about the prospects for verifying this declaration, because the president’s made very clear we are going to take that into account before we make any decisions,” Miss Rice told reporters during a summit of Asian leaders in Singapore on July 24.

President Bush announced on June 26 his intention to remove the North from the terrorist blacklist and to lift economic sanctions, hours after Pyongyang submitted an overdue account of its nuclear activities. North Korea expected action after 45 days - the minimum allowed for congressional notification - but after that period had passed, North Korea stayed on the blacklist, sparking a furious reaction from Pyongyang.

Last week, the North Koreans said they were trying to restart operations at their main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, which has been largely disabled as part of a six-nation deal reached last year. The Bush administration dismissed what it called “moving of equipment” as a “ploy” to win more concessions.

The administration has proposed a nuclear-verification plan committing the North to providing broad access to staff and facilities, as well as to other forms of cooperation.

As The Washington Times reported in July, the proposed nuclear plan does not include a timeline for completing the verification process.

North Korea, however, balked at elements of the plan that involve testing samples from its nuclear reactor, reprocessing and storage facilities.

It also has said that accepting the plan was never a formal condition for its removal from the terrorist list. Some North Korean officials were even quoted as saying that the chief U.S. negotiator, Christopher Hill, promised them “delisting” after the declaration’s submission.

During a visit to Beijing last week, Mr. Hill assured the North that it would be removed from the list “immediately” upon agreeing to the verification plan.

Washington has been buzzing for weeks with speculation about what exactly Mr. Hill promised the North and what kind of authorization he had to do it.

“There is no confusion on the North Koreans’ giving us a verifiable declaration,” Mr. Hill said Monday in response to questions from The Times. “They’ve agreed to it. The problem has to do with a couple of elements in it, which we are trying to work through.”

The North Korean mission to the United Nations in New York did not reply to phone and e-mail messages.

Former U.S. officials and analysts expressed bewilderment over Washington’s failure to secure a written document that formally requires the North to agree to the verification plan before being removed from the terrorist list.

“You need everything spelled out, so they don’t try to get out of the deal,” said Gary Samore, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “It’s a reasonable linkage to make between delisting and verification, but if it’s not in writing, they will exploit every ambiguity.”

In fact, Mr. Samore noted, even a written document doesn’t necessarily mean that the North Koreans would “carry it out,” but at least “in writing means mutual agreement.”

Other former officials said that the lack of a document and the lack of clarity about what was promised to Pyongyang reflect longtime divisions in the administration over North Korea policy.

“If you are going to engage in ‘wink and nod’ diplomacy with Pyongyang, then you need to be sure that you have your own leadership fully on board, and unfortunately, that’s never been the case,” said a former official who has had recent contacts with the North Koreans but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“It’s what has made negotiating these issues so difficult, and perhaps impossible,” he said. “The U.S. government is deeply divided, as it has always been, over the proper approach.”

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