By Glenn Kessler and Edward Cody
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The six-nation deal to shut down North Korea's nuclear facility, four months after Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test, was reached yesterday largely because President Bush was willing to give U.S. negotiators new flexibility to reach an agreement, U.S. officials and Asian diplomats said yesterday.
Ever since the North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 2002 after the discovery of a clandestine nuclear program, the Bush administration has insisted that North Korea should not be rewarded for its bad behavior -- and many of the U.S. offers have required Pyongyang to give up a lot before it could receive anything in return.
Now Bush has signed off on a deal that accepts North Korea's original position -- a "freeze" of its Yongbyon nuclear facility -- and requires Washington to move first by unfreezing some North Korean bank accounts. The agreement leaves until later dealing with such vexing issues as the dismantlement of the facility, North Korea's stash of weapons-grade plutonium and even North Korea's admission of the nuclear program that started the crisis in the first place.
As a result, the agreement came under attack yesterday, with conservatives labeling it a betrayal and Democrats charging that Bush allowed North Korea to become a nuclear-weapon state without gaining much improvement over a Clinton-era deal that collapsed during Bush's first term. But Bush pronounced himself "pleased" with the accord, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a prime architect of the accord, said it is just the beginning of a long process. "This is not the end of the story," she said, calling it the result of "patient, creative and tough diplomacy."
North Korea has a long history of brinkmanship and breaking international agreements, giving pause even to supporters of this diplomatic effort. Bush privately told a group of visiting North Korea experts in October, shortly after North Korea conducted its test, that he did not think any dictator would give up nuclear weapons but that he still saw no alternative to a diplomatic process. Administration officials say it actually became easier to win an agreement after the test because China, North Korea's main patron, was so shocked and embarrassed by Pyongyang's behavior that it became a driving force in the talks.
This deal came as the administration has struggled for some sort of diplomatic victory and as hard-liners who had opposed concessions -- such as former defense secretary Donald H. Rumseld and former ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton -- have left the administration.
The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, had over time been viewed with suspicion by administration hawks. But, in recent weeks, he worked closely with a White House aide, Victor Cha, who has conservative bona fides on North Korea. Informal talks Cha had with the North Koreans -- including a chance encounter in the Beijing airport in December -- helped lead to the unusual negotiations Hill and Cha held with North Korean counterparts in Berlin last month, officials said.
Those bilateral talks -- which sketched out the parameters of the final deal -- were personally approved by Bush after he had insisted for four years that he would not allow direct U.S.-North Korean negotiations.
Under the agreement, North Korea will close and "seal" its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon within 60 days in return for 50,000 tons of fuel oil, as a first step in its abandonment of all nuclear weapons and research programs.
North Korea also reaffirmed a commitment to disable the reactor in an undefined next phase of denuclearization, and to discuss with the United States and other nations its plutonium fuel reserves and other nuclear programs that "would be abandoned." In return for taking those further steps, the accord said, North Korea would receive additional "economic, energy and humanitarian assistance up to the equivalent of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil."
The pledges -- cited in an agreement reached in Beijing by North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States after six days of lengthy negotiations -- marked North Korea's first concrete commitment to implement an agreement in principle, dating to September 2005, to relinquish its entire nuclear program. In the view of U.S. and allied diplomats, they also amounted to a down payment on the establishment of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and of new relations among Northeast Asian countries.
Since the talks began in August 2003, the environment for negotiations has become significantly more dangerous. North Korea exploded a nuclear test device in October and declared itself a nuclear power, giving it a status it did not have four years ago, or even when the agreement in principle was reached in September 2005.
For its part, the United States reiterated an earlier promise to discuss normalizing relations with the Pyongyang government, a long-standing goal of North Korea.
Separately, Hill said, the United States pledged to North Korea and to China, the chair of the six-party process, that it will resolve within 30 days a dispute over U.S. charges that Banco Delta Asia in Macau has been laundering illicit money from North Korea. This represented a retreat for Washington, which had previously insisted that the banking dispute was a law-enforcement matter that should be treated separately from the nuclear diplomacy. The United States is expected to unfreeze as much as a third of $24 million in North Korean accounts, deeming that money to be legitimate, U.S. officials said.
The accord left for future negotiations the question of what to do with North Korea's declared nuclear weapons, estimated to be as many as 10 bombs from a stockpile of perhaps 50 kilograms of plutonium. In a harbinger of the potential difficulties ahead, the official North Korean news agency said the agreement requires only a temporary suspension of the country's nuclear facilities. "At the talks, the parties decided to offer economic and energy aid equivalent to 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil in connection with the DPRK's [North Korea's] temporary suspension of the operation of its nuclear facilities," it said.
Administration officials stressed that the agreement was an improvement over a bilateral deal reached in 1994 under then-President Bill Clinton, which collapsed after the Bush administration accused North Korea of conducting the clandestine uranium program. Under that agreement, North Korea froze the Yongbyon facility and agreed to "eventually dismantle" it in exchange for fuel oil and light-water reactors. Bush administration officials noted yesterday that the new agreement was signed by all of North Korea's neighbors, which they said would make it more difficult to break. Any suggestion of building light-water reactors for North Korea has been pushed far into the future.
Still, critics and supporters said that they were surprised by the extent of the administration's shift.
"All of us have been arguing -- engage, engage, engage," said John W. Lewis, a Stanford University professor who has repeatedly visited North Korea, most recently in November. "It had to begin with something like this, and it has gone far beyond what any one expected. It is really quite astonishing."
At the conservative Heritage Foundation, analyst Bruce Klingner said in a report that "the Bush Administration will be vulnerable to criticism that it has not only abandoned its principles, but that it did so while allowing North Korea to augment its nuclear weapons inventory." North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "used his characteristic mixture of military provocations, brinksmanship and crisis diplomacy to gain benefits for a return to the status quo ante and promises of future steps," Klingner wrote.
Cody reported from Beijing.