- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 6, 2002

SEOUL The Bush administration yesterday dispatched its special envoy for negotiations with North Korea to take part in a concrete-pouring ceremony tomorrow, marking a new stage in a U.S.-led nuclear power project plagued by repeated delays.
The dispatch of the special envoy, Jack Pritchard, came over the objections of critics within the administration who were uncomfortable with the United States edging closer to the communist state.
In the first signal that President Bush was moving closer to the Clinton administration's policy of offering Pyongyang carrots as well as sticks, Washington endorsed laying the foundations of the power plant's reactor buildings without securing the North's commitment to allow international inspectors full access to its facilities.
Mr. Pritchard yesterday attended a meeting here of the executive board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), charged with the plant's construction as part of a 1994 agreement between North Korea and the United States.
Tomorrow, Mr. Pritchard and representatives of the other three KEDO executive board members, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, will travel to the project's site in Kumho, on North Korea's eastern coast, to "commemorate the pouring of first concrete," KEDO said in a statement.
A State Department official in Washington said Mr. Pritchard's presence is only "for the purpose of representing the United States, and he has no scheduled meetings outside the ceremony."
"This event highlights both the tangible progress made in construction and the project's ultimate success of North Korea beginning to cooperate now with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] to come into full compliance with its nuclear safeguard obligations," the official said.
"We are moving forward to fulfill our obligations, and we are calling on North Korea to do the same," he said.
Another administration official said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sent Mr. Pritchard to North Korea after returning from a tour of South and Southeast Asia during the weekend. Mr. Powell ended a days-long battle between hawks and doves on the "axis of evil" state, which prevented the State Department from announcing the envoy's trip until the last moment.
"I don't think Pritchard should go, and the United States should not be raising champagne glasses," said the official in the hawks' camp. "But we understand the rationale: to support our alliances and deliver a strong message to North Korea."
Under the 1994 accord, known as the Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program, which was viewed by the United States as a weapons endeavor.
To compensate for the shortage of energy in the bankrupt state, Washington pledged to build two nuclear light-water reactors.
However, before any nuclear components can be delivered, Pyongyang must convince IAEA inspectors that it has no hidden plutonium, the primary fuel needed to make nuclear bombs.
The regime of Chairman Kim Jong-il so far has refused to present a full record of its plutonium and to provide the inspectors with the required access, citing delays in the plant's construction, for which it blames the United States.
The $4.6 billion project was started in 1997 and was supposed to be completed by next year, but that deadline was pushed back to 2008. The IAEA says inspections will take three to four years and must begin by 2003.
North Korea argues that under the agreement it does not have to fulfill its promises on access until a "significant part" of the project is completed.
Engagement with North Korea is not popular among Mr. Bush's political base at home, and many of his supporters view Pyongyang's recent overtures to the United States, South Korea and Japan as a result of the president's tough stance.
Some even said Washington needed to toughen South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine policy," which they said made too many concessions.
But South Korean officials and Americans who have dealt with the North say they are happy the administration appears to have realized that the IAEA inspections are Pyongyang's only leverage in what now seems an all-but-certain resumption of U.S.-North Korean dialogue.
In a move that reflected the complexity and sensitivity of his policy, Mr. Bush decided in March not to certify Pyongyang's compliance with the Agreed Framework but still ship 500,000 tons of fuel oil, as required by the accord.
A small group of U.S. lawmakers opposed to re-engagement with North Korea urged Mr. Bush earlier this year to cancel plans to provide the two light-water reactors, charging that Pyongyang was developing nuclear weapons.
"North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons," said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, New York Republican. "A nuclear-armed North Korea would pose a grave threat to our nation and our allies."
Wendy Sherman, the Clinton administration's top official on North Korea, at the time praised Mr. Bush for allowing the fuel-oil shipments to continue but questioned the effectiveness of the signal he was sending Pyongyang.
"This is not the best way to send a message. The North Koreans are not likely to hear it in nuances and subtleties," said Miss Sherman, who has met with Kim Jong-il and accompanied Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on her October 2000 visit to Pyongyang.
Yesterday, Miss Sherman said Mr. Pritchard's participation in the concrete-pouring ceremony is a "positive sign" that Washington is ready to go ahead with the Agreed Framework, even though there are people in the administration who oppose it.
Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, says the United States needs to make "a positive gesture" because "the clarity of our commitment to the Agreed Framework hasn't always been so good."
"The North Koreans are prickly, stubborn and unimaginative, so if you get into a tit-for-tat squabble with them, you will wind up with a bad outcome," he said. "But if you cajole and give them incentives without appeasing or fully trusting them, to be sure you can probably make progress."
North and South Korea agreed during the weekend to resume ministerial-level talks next week. A U.S. delegation led by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, is expected to visit Pyongyang in the near future.
North Korea will hold a rare meeting today with the U.S.-led United Nations Command, which administers the armistice agreement between the North and the South, to discuss a June 29 naval clash.
The incident, for which Pyongyang expressed "regret," killed four South Koreans and an estimated 13 sailors from the North.

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