N. Korea, U.S. Gave Ground to Make Deal

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, left, talks with fellow delegates. From left are Kenichiro Sasae of Japan, Wu Dawei of China, Song Min Soon of South Korea, Kim Gye Gwan of North Korea and Alexander Alexeyev of Russia.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, left, talks with fellow delegates. From left are Kenichiro Sasae of Japan, Wu Dawei of China, Song Min Soon of South Korea, Kim Gye Gwan of North Korea and Alexander Alexeyev of Russia. (Pool Photo/by Ng Han Guan Via Reuters)

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By Glenn Kessler and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The unexpected agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, announced yesterday in Beijing, followed decisions by both the Pyongyang government and the Bush administration to compromise on positions they had clung to during nearly three years of crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The document signed by North Korea, the United States and the other participants in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks opened the way for what all sides say will be lengthy negotiations on the actual dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The breakthrough accord followed a compromise proposed by China aimed at persuading both countries to sign a document of principles. The Bush administration dropped its opposition to North Korea receiving a light-water nuclear reactor in the future, a softening of its position that the demise of the North's nuclear ambitions must be "irreversible." North Korea said it would give up its nuclear weapons and all of its existing nuclear programs, would rejoin the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would allow inspections again by the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.

President Bush cautiously welcomed the agreement as "a step forward in making this world a more secure place" but warned that "we expect a verifiable process."

In an immediate demonstration of the difficulty ahead, the official North Korean news agency early today quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman as asserting that Pyongyang would not give up its weapons program until it received nuclear reactors from the United States. A State Department official shrugged off the statement, saying the focus would remain on the Beijing declaration.

The declaration came nearly three years after the Bush administration confronted the Pyongyang government with accusations of a secret uranium enrichment program, which U.S. officials said nullified a Clinton-era agreement to freeze its nuclear activities. Since then, in a separate program, North Korea is estimated by U.S. officials to have harvested enough plutonium for at least nine nuclear weapons. The North has declared it possesses nuclear arms, but no weapons tests have been detected.

Several key issues were deferred or avoided through diplomatic sleight of hand, such as the Bush administration's demand that North Korea admit the existence of the uranium project. The agreement contained no clear timeline for when the North would give up its nuclear programs, or how.

But by finally signing an agreement, North Korea took a major step toward securing international acceptance. The move, analysts said, will allow the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, to hang on to power for the foreseeable future and will gradually open the nation to foreign investment and avoid a sudden collapse of one of the world's most isolated nations.

For the Bush administration, analysts said, the agreement was welcome at a time when the war in Iraq has lost support at home and negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programs have sputtered. In addition, the president's approval ratings are low in the wake of his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.

"It's an all-front crisis for the Bush administration," said Kongdan Oh, an expert on the North Korean nuclear program at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria. "I think they thought, hey, North Korea is a small country and maybe we can handle it if we put it to the side for a while." But she said she did not believe North Korea would ever give up nuclear weapons, "its platinum trump card."

Surprisingly, diplomats said, the main sticking point in this round of negotiations was not persuading North Korea to make the paramount commitment to give up nuclear weapons and research. Rather, they explained, it was North Korea's side demand for a light-water reactor to produce electricity in return for giving up the other programs.

The United States adamantly opposed the demand, saying the North could not be trusted because it already had converted the Yongbyon reactor into a source of weapons-grade plutonium. The only possible outcome, U.S. negotiators said, was agreement to complete, verified abandonment of all nuclear programs.

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