Democrats Blast Bush Policy on N. Korea

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Bush administration came under fierce attack yesterday from Democrats for its North Korea policy, with the incoming chairman of the House International Relations Committee saying that change is "long overdue" and that the United States should allow its chief nuclear arms negotiator to visit Pyongyang, North Korea's capital.

Meanwhile, a group of experts returning from talks with top North Korean officials offered a pessimistic report on the prospects of reaching a deal when the long-stalled six-nation talks resume later this year. North Korean officials told the experts that they would take a much tougher stance when Pyongyang returns to the negotiating table, believing it is on "equal footing" with the United States now that it has tested a nuclear weapon.

Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, a former top State Department negotiator on North Korea, said that country's officials seem more interested in returning to the talks to make short-term gains, such as relief from a U.S. campaign to end North Korean counterfeiting of U.S. dollars or to patch up a damaged relationship with China. "They're not in this to give up their nuclear weapons," said Pritchard, now president of the Korean Economic Institute.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test Oct. 9, after refusing to return to the talks for nearly a year. The U.N. Security Council quickly condemned the test and imposed sanctions, and on Oct. 31 Pyongyang announced that it would return to the talks after the United States agreed to address its concerns about the financial crackdown.

At a hearing yesterday on the administration's preparation for the talks, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) faulted the administration's exclusive reliance on the six-nation negotiating framework, arguing that substantial bilateral contacts are necessary to reach any deal.

China, Japan, Russia and South Korea also participate in the talks, a format that some experts have said is cumbersome for difficult negotiations.

In the aftermath of the test, "it is now abundantly clear to the world that our current policies have failed," said Lantos, who will wield the gavel when the new Congress convenes in January. "I look forward to leading the efforts in Congress to keep North Korea on the front burner and to pushing the administration to resolve the feuds within its own ranks which have hobbled North Korea policy."

Lantos charged that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill has been undercut in his diplomacy by "hard-liners lodged in the office of the Vice President and the Defense Department." Hill had lobbied to travel to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean officials shortly after North Korea agreed in principle in September 2005 to dismantle its nuclear programs. But the trip never took place, and then the talks stalled over the Treasury Department action.

"Ambassador Hill must also make a stopover in Pyongyang on his way back from the six-party talks, not to negotiate a new and separate deal, but rather to demonstrate to Pyongyang our peaceful intent," Lantos said. "The administration's refusal to allow visits by American diplomats to North Korea must end, and it must end now."

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns noted that U.S. officials, including Hill, have met bilaterally with North Korean officials in Beijing and New York. "Some people are insisting that the United States should negotiate with North Korea solely on a bilateral basis," he said. "But the North Korean problem, especially its pursuit of nuclear weapons, is a regional problem, it's not just a bilateral issue, because this problem poses a threat to all of its neighbors."

Lantos won support for his position from several other Democrats, as well as from Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), who lost his reelection bid.

"I believe you set up a bit of a straw-man argument," Leach told Burns. "I know of no serious commentator or observer of North Korea that favors solely bilateral discussions, which is the way you phrased it." But, he said, the problem with the administration's approach is that Hill can meet only with North Korean diplomats who are not really the decision-makers.

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