By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill completed a surprise two-day trip to Pyongyang early today, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel there since the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions began nearly five years ago.
Hill visited the North Korean capital at the sudden request of the country's government, and -- in a shift in policy -- the United States did not demand any concessions as a condition for the trip. Hill had long lobbied to travel to Pyongyang, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top officials had insisted that North Korea had to earn such a high-profile gesture by first shutting down its nuclear reactor.
But the aging reactor at Yongbyon is still operational, and this week the United States also arranged for North Korea to receive millions of dollars that the U.S. Treasury Department had previously deemed the fruits of illicit activities.
The Bush administration -- which once all but barred bilateral contacts between North Korean and U.S. diplomats -- has sought to portray such shifts in policy as part of a natural evolution. But former administration officials who had once fought internal battles over North Korea policy said yesterday that the administration appears to be weakening its negotiating position by making so many concessions so quickly.
"Meeting and engaging with North Korea bilaterally is appropriate," said Michael J. Green, who was the top Asia specialist at the White House in 2005 and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But the administration has to be careful about shifting goal posts. North Korea has not shut down their reactor, and they have extracted all of their demands -- demands they had been told they would not get unless the reactor was shut down."
Many of President Bush's core conservative supporters also expressed distress over the administration's move. "This is another mistake that will convince the North Koreans that they have the whip hand and the State Department is desperate for a deal," said John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack rejected notions that the administration has changed direction. "There are always accusations of 'Well, you know, the administration has come unmoored from its principles and its policies, and it's shifting policies,' " he told reporters. "I would submit to you that this is not a change in policy."
State Department officials said that Hill's trip came about unexpectedly this week while the U.S. negotiator was traveling in Asia, consulting with the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese about restarting the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. North Korea sent a message noting that it -- along with Russia -- was also part of the six-party talks and, thus, should be included in Hill's consultations. Rice discussed the proposal with Bush before approving the trip, with Vice President Cheney not raising any objection.
The visit came about so quickly that Hill was accompanied by only a small group of State Department colleagues, rather than the standard delegation that would have included representatives from the White House and the Pentagon.
Hill has long believed that he could make more progress if he met with a wider range of North Korean officials than just the nuclear negotiators. He was scheduled to meet with the North Korean foreign minister, but it was unclear whether he would be granted a meeting with Kang Suk Ju, the first vice foreign minister and right-hand man of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Kang has directed North Korea's nuclear diplomacy since the early 1990s.
"Kang is the buffer," said Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, president of the Korean Economic Institute.
Footage from Associated Press Television showed Hill arriving at Pyongyang's airport in a small jet amid a steady downpour. His five-member delegation was met by Li Gun, Pyongyang's deputy nuclear negotiator.
"We want to get the six-party process moving," Hill, standing under an umbrella, said in the footage. "We hope that we can make up for some of the time that we lost this spring, and so I'm looking forward to good discussions about that."
After his meetings, Hill told APTN before departing Pyongyang: "We had a good discussion about the way forward at the six-party talks." He declined to provide specifics. But he said that he met with Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun and Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, his negotiating counterpart.
North Korea had pledged in February to disable its Yongbyon reactor, but it missed an April deadline because of a dispute over $25 million in North Korean-linked funds that had been frozen because of a Treasury Department investigation. North Korea demanded a wire transfer, but for months no bank would agree to accept the money because about half of it appeared linked to North Korean money-laundering and other illicit activities.
That dispute was apparently resolved this week, after the Federal Reserve Bank of New York wired about $23 million to the Russian central bank last week. (About $2 million could not be transferred because North Korean officials could not obtain the appropriate release from account holders, U.S. officials said.) Russian officials announced yesterday that the funds were to be transferred to a Russian bank in which North Korea has an account, finally giving Pyongyang access to the money.
North Korea has said that once it receives the money, it would invite International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to begin discussions on the closure of the facility, which produces weapons-grade plutonium.
Since the reactor was restarted in 2002, North Korea has obtained enough plutonium to make as many as a dozen weapons.