- The Washington Times - Monday, November 18, 2002

North Korea is about to lose all its benefits under a 1994 nuclear agreement with the United States, including two light-water reactors currently being built in the North. But a senior U.S. official says Washington is in no hurry to resolve its dispute with Pyongyang because it might interfere with the Iraq conflict.
The Bush administration will also refrain from "doing anything dramatic" before a new South Korean president assumes office in January, hoping that the winner of next month's election will be more supportive of the tough U.S. stance and will scrap the "sunshine policy" of outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, the official said.
"What we've been doing is trying to avoid [letting] the North Korea situation interfere with Iraq. Not that North Korea is a lower priority or that we are less concerned about it, but you can only handle so many international crises at the same time," the official said in an extensive interview on the administration's policy toward Pyongyang.
"We've had a number of different considerations we've been wrestling with, but the ultimate conclusion that the North's benefits under the Agreed Framework are about to disappear is not in dispute anymore," he said late last week.
Washington claims North Korea has in effect invalidated the nuclear accord by developing a covert uranium-enrichment program, which Pyongyang acknowledged during a visit in early October by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific affairs. The administration has demanded complete and verifiable dismantling of the program before any dialogue can take place.
But, fundamentally, the U.S. policy based on negotiations and agreements is being replaced by one of containment and isolation, the senior official said.
"It's not all wrapped up, because we do have to deal with allies and the international community, and we've got Iraq there. We are not in a hurry to get this to a resolution quickly, but there shouldn't be any misunderstanding as to what our direction is," he said.
More specifically, he noted that after last week's decision to stop the delivery of heavy fuel oil to the North in December, the next step will be to abandon the light-water reactor project in Kumho, on North Korea's northeastern coast.
Although the reactors are funded mainly by Japan and South Korea, "everybody knows that if we are not committed to this thing, it's not going to happen," the official said. More importantly, he added, "the Japanese Diet is not going to appropriate another yen for those things given the current circumstances," and once Mr. Kim leaves office in Seoul, "support for this house of cards will collapse."
"There won't be any light-water reactors," he said. "When the chicken stops twitching I don't know, but its head has been cut off."
The fate of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which was founded by the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union to implement the Agreed Framework, has yet to be decided, the official said, but "if KEDO doesn't have any funding, it's hard to see how it will continue."
The intelligence indicating that the North had a secret nuclear weapons program "came in a relatively short period of time" in midsummer, he said, but it was no reason to cancel the participation of Jack Pritchard, the States Department's special envoy for North Korea, in a subsequent concrete-pouring ceremony at the reactors' Kumho site.
What was significant about the intelligence, the official noted, was that the North "had moved from research and development in uranium enrichment to a production-size operation," which was a "major shift."
Confronted on the program by Mr. Kelly, the North Koreans said: "We are entitled to it, and you are in breach of the Agreed Framework [because you are behind schedule with the reactors]. We have even more powerful weapons, and why don't we have a summit in Pyongyang and see what we do next," the U.S. official said.
"We were absolutely amazed [by the transcript], and we speculated what it meant," the official recalled. "The generally accepted view is that the North Koreans were going to try again what they did in 1993 and 1994 put it on the table for bargaining purposes and see what they can get out of it, which was a big miscalculation on their part."
Critics of the Bush administration's "limited" approach say it should not rule out talks entirely before the uranium program is eliminated and spell out what "completely and verifiably" means.
"We have to be specific," said a former senior U.S. official who has negotiated with the North Koreans. "They have to know what is expected of them. Someone else could deliver the message now, but at some point down the road, we have to talk."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the "most effective way to halt Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program is tough but pragmatic engagement rather than confrontation and isolation."
"Instead of cutting off contact with North Korea and precipitously terminating the Agreed Framework, the Bush team, in coordination with Congress, should link future energy assistance to North Korea to visible evidence that its uranium-enrichment activities have ended," he said.
Both the former official and Mr. Kimball said the prospect of Pyongyang reopening its plutonium program, frozen in 1994, posed a much greater danger than the uranium program, which appears to be in its early stages.
But the senior official said such a move would put the North "in such variance with everybody else in the world that I think we would have nearly total support for a policy of isolation."


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