- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bush administration is running out of options in its attempts to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons, and the best it may be able to do is keep six-party negotiations on life support until the next president takes office in January, current and former officials said Monday.

Even though they expressed serious concern about the North’s declared intention to restore its almost disabled nuclear reactor, the officials said that making the Yongbyon complex operational again cannot be accomplished in four months.

“We are at a crossroads, and we don’t have many options,” one official said. “They are not quite there [with reassembling], but they appear to be moving in that direction.”

Another official said that Yongbyon’s full restoration could take about a year, and that most of the recent such activity appears to be at the plant’s fuel-reprocessing facility.

“When you look at reprocessing, that could be a piece that could happen probably sooner than the other pieces,” the official said, adding that the destroyed cooling tower will take longer to rebuild.

Pyongyang asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Monday to remove seals and cameras from Yongbyon. The agency’s director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said North Korea wanted to “carry out tests at the reprocessing plant, which they say will not involve nuclear material.”

President Bush expressed his concern to [Chinese] President Hu [Jintao] about the latest North Korean announcement that they plan to restore the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon to their original state,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in reference to a phone call late Sunday.

“The two presidents agreed that they would work hard to convince the North to continue down the path established in the six-party talks toward denuclearization,” he said.

A former U.S. official who has had recent contacts with the North Koreans, as well as with other members of the six-party process, said Pyongyang thinks it has been “misled” by the United States during the negotiations, and that “things may get worse before they get better.”

“If I’m right, then perhaps the best that we can hope for is that things don’t deteriorate too much, and that we manage to keep the negotiating process on life support until January,” he said.

The North Koreans have said that Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, promised them removal from the State Department’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism once they submit a declaration of their nuclear activities.

Mr. Hill has neither confirmed nor denied that claim, saying only that the North knows what it needs to do. The Bush administration insists on reaching an agreement on a mechanism to verify the declaration before taking Pyongyang off the list.

“We want to make sure that the North lives up to its obligations, one of which is providing a verification regime that we’re still waiting on,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday.

Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the six-party talks are “firmly deadlocked,” and that the administration’s hope for a foreign policy legacy on the Korean Peninsula is “fading.”

“The administration’s ability to compromise is limited, because verification is really important for people across the political spectrum,” he said. “I don’t think the six-party talks are going to move forward.”

A State Department official said that if the North Koreans are just “waiting out” the Bush administration, that may be a “strategic mistake,” because the deal on the table may be “the best they can get.”

Both main presidential candidates, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, support the negotiations with the North, but they have made clear that they would be as tough as the Bush administration - if not tougher - in making sure that any claims by Pyongyang are verified.

Bill Gertz contributed to this report.

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