- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

The Bush administration, desperate for a major foreign-policy success as its time in office winds down, is much closer to a breakthrough in North Korea than in Iraq or Iran or in pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

But instead of touting its diplomatic achievements on the Korean Peninsula, it has played down the issue, trying instead to focus public attention on its much bigger problems in Iraq.

Five years ago, North Korea was a charter member of President Bush’s “axis of evil,” and he rarely missed a chance to express his dislike and distrust of the reclusive state’s leader, Kim Jong-il.

This month, however, U.S. officials toured the North’s main nuclear facility in Yongbyon and held discussions with their North Korean counterparts on how exactly to disable and dismantle the complex.

“They also visited and had an extensive walk-through and worked with North Korean experts in the reprocessing facility, and that’s where you take the spent fuel rods from the reactor and you reprocess them into plutonium,” chief U.S. negotiator Christopher R. Hill told reporters at the State Department.

If Pyongyang cooperates fully on the nuclear account, the administration has offered not only to establish diplomatic relations, but also to take it off its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism and to support a peace treaty that would formally end the 1950-53 Korean War.

U.S. officials and analysts said there are two main reasons why the administration is lying low when it comes to its dealings with North Korea: The first has to do with the nature of the regime in Pyongyang; the second, with the administration’s political base.

“Trusting and negotiating with a country like North Korea is not a popular thing,” said Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Dismantling their programs is far from a done deal.”

Mr. Wolfsthal noted that the Clinton administration was not that much more eager to advertise its diplomatic successes with the North, even after it negotiated the so-called Agreed Framework that froze Pyongyang’s plutonium program in 1994.

Administration officials said there is no guarantee that Mr. Kim won’t change his mind about an agreement reached with the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in February, which would dismantle the North’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for political and economic benefits.

Wendy Sherman, who was President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright’s senior adviser on North Korea in the late 1990s, said the Bush administration also is trying not to anger its conservative supporters with its more conciliatory approach to the North.

“They have to be very careful with their base,” she said. “They desperately need to hold on to the base on Iraq, so they need to be careful about everything else they do.”

When reports surfaced this month about purported North Korean exports of nuclear material to Syria, some former officials involved in Korea policy during Mr. Bush’s first term called for an immediate suspension of the negotiations.

But the State Department, which has been driving North Korea policy since Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state, said the suspected Syria link highlights the value of the six-party process.

“It’s an important reminder of the need to accelerate the process that we are already engaged in, and to push for what we’ve already agreed to do, which is to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Hill said. “And that, of course, involves any issues of proliferation.”

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