- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

President Bush yesterday rejected the notion that the U.S. has lowered the bar for North Korea’s declaration of nuclear activity, pushing back against criticism from a former top administration official, members of Congress and others.

The North Koreans, Mr. Bush said, “have yet to make a full declaration” of nuclear activity, which they had promised to do by the end of 2007 under a six-nation agreement to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

“Why don’t we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether or not this is a good deal or a bad deal?” Mr. Bush said during a press conference at his Camp David retreat with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

The newly elected Mr. Lee, in his first trip as head of state to the U.S., said that convincing North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il to give up his nuclear weapons will be “difficult” but “not impossible.”

Mr. Bush also thanked Mr. Lee for agreeing this week to drop restrictions on U.S. beef exports to South Korea, and said he will push Democrats to pass a free-trade agreement with Seoul this year, despite their blocking a trade pact with Colombia this month.

“Our United States Congress must reject protectionism,” Mr. Bush said.

On North Korea, Mr. Bush said that critics of his approach to Pyongyang — who include John R. Bolton, the president’s former top counterproliferation official at the State Department — are “jumping ahead of the game.”

Mr. Bolton, who was also the president’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2005 and 2006, has turned on the Bush administration in the last year, insisting Mr. Bush has allowed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top deputy for East Asian affairs, Christopher Hill, to capitulate to North Korea.

After the White House said publicly this week that North Korea could detail its nuclear-proliferation activities in a separate declaration that would remain secret, Mr. Bolton said the administration is now “in full retreat.”

Dennis Wilder, the president’s top Asia adviser, insisted Thursday that a North Korean declaration on its own nuclear bomb-making activities would not be “decoupled” from a declaration on passing along nuclear technology or materials to other countries. All such material is required under the denuclearization agreement, which promises Pyongyang economic support and a removal from the U.S. list of terrorism sponsors.

“No one has let them off the hook with that declaration,” Mr. Wilder said.

But Miss Rice said this week that she would only disclose “a sense” of what the North Koreans had revealed about past proliferation and offered to brief Congress.

North Korea has shut down and almost disabled its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, but the goal of the six-party process, involving the U.S., North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, is to “irreversibly” dismantle Pyongyang’s programs.

Mr. Hill agreed last week in Singapore to an updated deal, under which the U.S. will now declare what it thinks North Korea has done in the realm of nuclear bomb-making and proliferation, and the North Koreans will “acknowledge” and not contest the declaration.

Mr. Bolton said in a phone interview yesterday that the key issue remains whether the U.S. will take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism without verifying the extent of its nuclear activity.

Mr. Bush yesterday simply said to “wait and see,” and did not address the issue of separate agreements for nuclear production and nuclear proliferation.

“There’s all kinds of rumors about what is happening and what’s not happening. Obviously, I’m not going to accept a deal that doesn’t advance the interests of the region,” the president said.

Mr. Bush indicated that he might not have been pleased with disclosures about the latest negotiations. He compared U.S. and North Korean press freedoms to make the point that in the U.S., government officials talk to the press more openly.

But when the president said that “there’s all kinds of people in the administration talking and sharing information with you — some of it authorized, some of it’s not,” he looked over at the delegation of U.S. officials, which included Miss Rice, Mr. Hill and Mr. Wilder.

It was impossible to tell at whom the glance was directed, but it appeared to be a clear expression of irritation. Miss Rice could be seen after the press conference speaking animatedly with White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Mr. Lee’s visit to Camp David was the first for any South Korean head of state to the presidential retreat, nestled in the hills of north central Maryland.

Mr. Bush agreed to visit Mr. Lee this summer in Seoul, and will likely do so either in July during his trip to Japan for the Group of Eight summit or in August during his scheduled trip to China for the Olympic Games.

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.

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