- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2008

SINGAPORE | A U.S.-drafted document meant to be the basis for verifying North Korea’s recently submitted nuclear declaration contains no timeline, meaning that the process could continue into the next administration, Washington’s chief negotiator with Pyongyang acknowledged Tuesday.

Christopher Hill, speaking a day before foreign ministers from the six countries negotiating the dismantling of the North’s nuclear programs were to discuss the issue together for the first time, also said the draft envisions a role for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

An agreement on a so-called verification protocol would complete the second phase of a deal reached last year in the talks among North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. During this phase, North Korea has shut down and largely disabled its main nuclear reactor and produced a declaration of activities related to plutonium, the key ingredient for one type of nuclear weapon.

“The actual verification, which would go alongside phase three, will involve things like sampling. But in order to sample, you need to complete some actions, for example, of disablement,” Mr. Hill said.

“So I don´t think you can commit yourself to a time frame for verification,” he told reporters traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Singapore for an annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Miss Rice and her fellow ministers are scheduled to confer on the sidelines of the gathering for the first time since the so-called six-party process began in 2003.

North Korea has failed to meet previous deadlines under last year’s agreement. Despite these glitches and delays, Miss Rice will be meeting Wednesday for the first time with her North Korean counterpart, Pak Ui-chun - the highest-level talks between Washington and Pyongyang in four years. Miss Rice´s predecessor, Colin L. Powell, had coffee with Mr. Pak´s predecessor, Paek Nam-sun, at the 2004 ASEAN summit in Jakarta.

The Rice meeting follows by only a few days the participation of William Burns, the State Department’s third-ranking official, in a multilateral meeting with an Iranian nuclear negotiator. Bush administration critics on the left regard U.S. diplomacy with adversaries such as North Korea and Iran as too little, too late; critics on the right are furious that the administration is engaging at all with members of the so-called “axis of evil.”

“This is better than the policy that brought us to eight bombs and an underground test, but it comes late,” said Ashton Carter, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. The Bush administration scrapped a 1994 agreement with North Korea in 2002 after Pyongyang acknowledged that it had a secret program to enrich uranium, another potential fuel for bombs. North Korea resumed plutonium production in 2003 and tested a nuclear device in 2006.

Mr. Carter, a nuclear specialist at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said Mr. Hill might have reached understandings with North Korea that he chose not to disclose. “My guess is there are dimensions to what Chris is doing that we don’t know about,” Mr. Carter said.

Mr. Hill, who is also assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said the draft protocol must be approved by all six countries by the week of Aug. 10.

“They made some preliminary comments and indicated some problems with it,” he said of the North Koreans, but he declined to be more specific.

Verification of the North´s programs “could take months,” he said. The process will include review of documents, some of which have already been handed over to U.S. officials, interviews with personnel and sampling.

The role to be played by the IAEA is no clearer than the time frame for verification. Mr. Hill declined to say whether Washington would demand that IAEA inspectors be actively involved in the verification process on the ground, something Pyongyang might resist.

He said he plans to visit IAEA officials at the agency´s headquarters in Vienna, Austria, on Friday - not necessarily to discuss their role in North Korea, but to brief them on “where we stand in the process.”

The six parties did not reach an agreement on the protocol at their last meeting two weeks ago, and instead came up with verification “principles.” They were criticized by analysts, including some in favor of a deal with the North, for being too vague.

Mr. Hill insisted that the protocol will be more specific and will answer some of the issues not addressed in the principles.

In a nod to criticism of the administration’s North Korea diplomacy, both Miss Rice and Mr. Hill sought to lower expectations for the meeting with Mr. Pak, with Miss Rice calling it a “consultation” and not “historic, monumental or even consequential.”

“It will give us some indications of the amount of effort the North Koreans [are putting] into completing this verification protocol,” Mr. Hill said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, however, said the ministerial meeting will be “very significant for advancing the spirit of the six-party talks.”

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