Current and former U.S. officials say the Bush administration has put unprecedented trust in North Korea‘s regime - a charter member of its “axis of evil” - and accepted verbal agreements that Pyongyang now disputes, with potentially unsettling implications for arms control.
Most recently, the administration has taken as sufficient an oral commitment by North Korea to allow sampling and other scientific activities to verify its nuclear history - a pledge the North says it never made.
The only written account of that promise - which the officials say was given privately to chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill by his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, in Pyongyang last month - is in a “memorandum of conversation” written by Mr. Hill to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
North Korea, however, insists that it never agreed to sampling and other measures to verify a nuclear declaration it submitted in June to six-nation disarmament talks. In a statement earlier this month, the North said it accepted a document with no specific enforcement measures.
Miss Rice told reporters Sunday that leaders of the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan agreed during a weekend economic summit in Peru to meet in China Dec. 8 to try to clarify the situation.
The State Department says it has not released Mr. Hill’s memorandum to Miss Rice because it is an internal document.
Mr. Hill told other members of the administration that the North Koreans were blustering, according to a former senior official who still maintains regular contact with his ex-colleagues. He requested anonymity because he was discussing private conversations.
Mr. Hill and his aides declined to comment, but a senior State Department official did not dispute the former official’s account. The official also conceded that no written, audio or video evidence exists of North Korea’s commitment to allow sampling at its nuclear sites.
Department spokesman Sean McCormack said:
“The U.S.-North Korea agreement on verification measures has been codified in a joint document between the United States and North Korea and certain other understandings, and has been reaffirmed through intensive consultations.”
In an indication of doubt about Mr. Kim’s private commitment, an Asia analyst at a Washington think tank said he received a call from the State Department after Mr. Hill returned from Pyongyang and was told that U.S. officials “hoped” the North would agree to the understandings in the near future.
The “understandings,” which include the specific measures and were written by the United States, have been released, but the main agreement has not.
Neither of the documents was signed, said officials close to the negotiations who asked not to be named. In fact, the officials said, none of the six-party documents has been signed.
There is a major difference, however, between agreements reached in multilateral negotiations, where six countries’ representatives sit in the same room, and bilateral accords between two enemies. In this case, the United States was negotiating bilaterally as head of the so-called “verification working group” in the six-party talks.
The Agreed Framework, a 1994 U.S.-North Korea accord negotiated by the Clinton administration that froze the North’s plutonium program, was signed by both sides, said Robert Gallucci, a top negotiator who signed for the United States.
The Bush administration came into office scornful of that agreement and scrapped it in 2002 after North Korea admitted starting a secret program to enrich uranium. Earlier in 2002, President Bush, in his State of the Union address, referred to North Korea as a member of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In the past two years, however, the Bush administration has engaged in the sort of bilateral negotiations with North Korea that it used to criticize.
Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York and a former career diplomat, said it appears that the administration has no “accountability mechanism” when negotiating with the North.
“I hope there will come a day when we can base our relationship with Pyongyang on mutual trust and good faith, but we are unfortunately not there yet,” he said. “It’s particularly important that the Bush administration reassure skeptics that there are no differences between Washington and Pyongyang over how to interpret the agreements that have been reached.”
Miss Rice, who officials said is concerned about the lack of written proof of Mr. Kim’s commitment, has instructed Mr. Hill to turn his memorandum of conversation into an official six-party document.
“The six-party process cannot move forward absent a verification protocol being finalized and adopted,” Mr. McCormack said.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the Bush administration’s failure so far to secure such a protocol shows that it “prematurely removed North Korea” from the U.S. blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, which it announced on Oct. 11.
Officials said that, during Mr. Hill’s October visit, the North Koreans threatened to begin reprocessing plutonium for use in nuclear weapons again or even test a weapon, as they did in 2006, if they did not come off the list. The North stopped reprocessing and almost disabled its main reactor at Yongbyon as part of an earlier six-party deal, which also included energy and economic aid.
This summer, the administration said the North had agreed to finalize a verification protocol before its removal from the terrorist list. But the administration failed to provide written proof of that promise when the North denied it.
“Who’s telling the truth? There is no way to know, since Washington has relied on ambiguous text, oral agreements and side letters to keep the negotiations going, but allowing North Korea to avoid full compliance,” Mr. Klingner said.
Mr. Revere said that such negotiating tactics fall short of “promoting confidence by the American people, Congress” and the other six-party members, which also include China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
“The concerns that have been raised by the lack of such reassurances provide an important lesson for the next U.S. administration as it begins to develop its approach to bilateral talks with Pyongyang,” he said.