U.S. Official: N. Korea Ready to Disable Nuclear Reactor

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007; 10:12 AM

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill completed a surprise 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.

Back in Seoul, Hill told reporters that North Korea was ready to disable its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and live up to pledges it made in a disarmament agreement earlier this year, Reuters reported. In a live interview with CNN, he said the entire process would not be completed until later this year.

"The North Koreans are going to shut the thing down and then put seals on it to keep it shut down," Hill told CNN. "The actual disabling, where you break it and it can't be brought back on line, that's a few months down the road."

He said the United States would continue to press North Korea to allow inspection of and relinquish all materials and equipment related to its nuclear program. "I don't want to go into specific elements of our discussions except to say we of course did discuss the need to have a comprehensive list of all nuclear programs, and I would just say 'all' means all," Hill said, according to Reuters.

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 the 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.

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