By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
North Korea appears increasingly willing to bargain over the terms of ending its nuclear programs, prompting cautious optimism that some sort of agreement may be reached when the six-nation disarmament talks reconvene next week in Beijing, U.S. and Asian officials close to the talks said.
With just two years left in President Bush's term, State Department officials appear to have been given new freedom to explore different outcomes and proposals with their North Korean counterparts, most recently during unusual bilateral talks held in Berlin. North Korean officials have responded in kind, for the first time moving beyond quibbles about the wording in communiques and actually talking specifically about what they might do to end their nuclear programs, the officials said.
Officials cautioned that intensive bargaining will be necessary for any deal in a process that has generally yielded little but disappointment, most recently during a round of talks in December. In September 2005, North Korea agreed to a joint communique in which it said it would abandon its nuclear programs in exchange for economic and security incentives. But then it boycotted the talks for 13 months in anger over a Treasury Department action against a Macau bank allegedly acting as a conduit for North Korean counterfeiting.
North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in October, which put it at odds with longtime ally China. But other nations at the talks -- such as Russia -- recently put pressure on the United States to end the financial crackdown against Banco Delta Asia. The talks also include China, South Korea and Japan.
Sources close to the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the United States, backed by China, is seeking some sort of disablement of the North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon, but Pyongyang has thus far proposed only to allow the return of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. North Korea in the past four years has obtained from spent fuel rods at the facility enough plutonium for an estimated 10 nuclear weapons, and it might consider freezing the facility. But that would be problematic for the Bush administration because that would result in a deal similar to the one obtained by then-President Bill Clinton -- which Bush has said was a bad bargain.
Any agreement is likely to include some sort of resolution of the Banco Delta Asia issue. Pyongyang officials have demanded that $24 million in frozen North Korean accounts be returned, but U.S. officials have indicated a willingness to discuss only the return of some funds that have no clear connection to illicit activity.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, declined yesterday to discuss specifics or to predict success. "We go there thinking our team has worked as hard as we can, and we have a basis for calling a meeting and a basis for moving forward," he said.
Michael J. Green, the top White House official for Asia policy until a year ago, said the administration will have to balance its interest in winning an agreement against the possibility that North Korea will agree only to a partial solution -- and will ultimately keep its nuclear weapons -- to relieve the pressure from U.N. sanctions. "The devil is in the details," he said.
Green, a Japan expert, added that there is increasing nervousness among Japanese officials that the Bush administration is getting soft on North Korea because of the turmoil in Iraq.
That nervousness extends to U.S. officials deeply skeptical of North Korea. "Any deal that they would agree to now is no good," said John R. Bolton, until recently U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the top arms-control official during Bush's first term. "It is inconceivable that they will agree to the intrusive inspections regime that we need to have any confidence they would live up to the terms of the deal."