Thursday, May 1, 2008

North Korea has tentatively agreed to give the United States thousands of records from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor dating back to 1990 to complement an expected declaration of its nuclear programs, administration and congressional officials said yesterday.

The United States is seeking access to those records, as well as samples from toxic waste and the destruction of the “cooling tower” at the North’s main nuclear complex in response to criticism that it is lowering the bar in negotiations with Pyongyang, the officials said.

“The administration is trying to work out the arrangements necessary to verify the accuracy of the North Korean declaration,” one official said in reference to an account of the North’s nuclear programs required in six-nation talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

“We need to secure access not only to records, but also to waste product,” said the official, who, like all other sources interviewed for this article, asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The tentative agreement was reached last week in Pyongyang between Kim Kye-gwan, the chief North Korean negotiator, and Sung Kim, director of the Korea office at the State Department, officials said.

North Korea missed a Dec. 31 deadline to disclose details of its nuclear past, a key step in negotiations in which the North would receive aid and other economic assistance for giving up atomic weapons and the ability to produce them.

The Bush administration has been holding off on announcing the latest deal to give the North Korean diplomat time to clear it with his superiors. Officials said they were waiting for official confirmation from Pyongyang, which could come as early as today.

The United States estimates that North Korea has between 65 and 110 pounds of plutonium. It triggered a small nuclear explosion in an October 2006 test.

“The North Koreans were more forthcoming than they have been in the past about their plutonium effort,” a senior administration official said about last week’s meetings.

“I’m talking about their willingness to disclose what their program looks like — the elements, how the whole thing was put together, the facilities and processes by which they came up with the plutonium for weapons,” he said.

The North froze plutonium production after a 1994 deal with the Clinton administration known as the Agreed Framework, under which it received economic aid such as fuel oil to generate electricity.

But it declared the agreement dead and reopened the plant in early 2003.

That move followed the Bush administration’s assertion in October 2002 that Pyongyang had developed a secret uranium-enrichment program in the 1990s.

Both plutonium and enriched uranium can fuel a nuclear explosion.

The administration has insisted for months that the uranium effort, as well as the North’s proliferation activities, be included in the declaration, which is required under a six-nation agreement reached last year.

Earlier last month, however, the administration said that those two issues will be dealt with in a separate document.

Officials said privately that the United States will write the document instead of the North Koreans, who will simply “acknowledge” the U.S. concerns.

Criticism of the proposed disclosure procedure on Capitol Hill and in the administration itself prompted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to emphasize the importance of verification, which led to last week’s demands put by the State Department’s Mr. Kim during his visit to Pyongyang.

Also last week, the administration told Congress that a Syrian plutonium facility that was bombed by Israel in September was built with North Korean help.

President Bush said the disclosure was meant to show Pyongyang that Washington knows more than the North thinks it does.

A former administration official familiar with the current strategy said that Washington was also asking Pyongyang to expedite the collapse of Yongbyon’s cooling tower, a step that would make it difficult for plutonium production to resume.

The collapse would have been part of the complex’s dismantling in the next stage of the process — at least months away — but the administration is seeking to satisfy Congress that the North’s program cannot be easily reversed, officials said.

“We have to make sure this is something we can take to Congress and the American people and stand behind,” the senior administration official said. “We are moving closer to a declaration that has credibility on plutonium.”

A congressional official suggested that Washington would also seek access to the site where North Korea conducted its 2006 test. But the former administration official said that such access will be difficult to gain, and that demand may be a bargaining chip.

“The tactic so far has been that we ask for 10 things, get three and move on,” he said.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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