Teams to Survey N. Korea Facilities

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 8, 2007

SYDNEY, Sept. 8 -- The United States, China and Russia plan to send teams of experts to North Korea next week to survey nuclear facilities, a step toward disabling the country's nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials said Friday.

Christopher R. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, told reporters that the technical teams were being dispatched at the suggestion of North Korea, an apparent breakthrough in what have been fitful negotiations with the enigmatic Communist government over its nuclear program.

The experts plan to begin conducting an inventory of North Korea's nuclear facilities to determine the best way to disable them, Hill said.

The status of North Korea's nuclear disarmament efforts dominated an hour-long meeting Friday between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun. The talks ended with an awkward public exchange between the two leaders over whether the 1953 truce that halted the Korean War might soon be replaced with a formal peace treaty as part of the nuclear deal.

Bush came into office deeply skeptical of the Clinton administration's efforts to offer incentives to North Korea for dismantling its program. A deal that President Bill Clinton had crafted with North Korea collapsed in 2002 after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of operating a clandestine program to enrich uranium. North Korea then restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, extracting enough weapons-grade plutonium for as many as 10 weapons, which led to a period of halting negotiations.

The United States, Japan, Russia, China and the two Koreas have been conducting so-called six-party negotiations sporadically since 2003.

In 2005, talks to end North Korea's nuclear program stalled after the Treasury Department alleged that North Korea was involved in illicit counterfeiting and money-laundering schemes. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became intrigued with the idea of offering North Korea a peace treaty as a way of jump-starting the talks, according to "The Confidante," a new book by Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler.

Until Friday, Bush had only hinted at the idea in his public comments. But the book says Bush raised the idea with Chinese President Hu Jintao over lunch at the White House in April 2006. Hu agreed to send an emissary to North Korea to gauge how a peace treaty might be received.

Last October, while the six-party talks were stalled, North Korea announced it had conducted its first underground nuclear test.

The action spurred the administration to more actively engage the country and agree to abandon the Treasury action. In February, the United States and North Korea agreed to gradually restore diplomatic and economic relations.

Last Sunday, North Korean officials announced that they would disclose all of the nation's nuclear activities and disable its nuclear facilities by the end of the year. In July, North Korea closed its main plutonium reactor at Yongbyon after receiving 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil from South Korea -- the first installment of 1 million tons pledged as part of the February agreement.

North Korea's invitation for the inspectors to begin surveying its nuclear facilities "is a sign of the seriousness of purpose that all sides, including the North Koreans, bring to this," Hill said.

The announcement came after Bush and Roh made a joint appearance following their meeting here on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which ends Saturday.

Normally, the public statements following such meetings are vague, polite and ceremonial. But that was not the case Friday. Bush spoke first, declaring the meeting to be "frank and friendly," and said that after North Korea scraps its nuclear weapons program, "we can achieve a new security arrangement in the Korean Peninsula."

Roh was dissatisfied with that and, toward the end of his remarks, challenged Bush. "I think I did not hear President Bush mention the -- a declaration to end the Korean War just now," said Roh, whose remarks in Korean were translated into English. "Did you say so, President Bush?"

Appearing annoyed, Bush replied, "I said it's up to Kim Jong Il as to whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War."

Roh replied by urging Bush to be "clearer" in his message, leaving members of both delegations smiling nervously as they watched the exchange. "I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President," Bush replied, before ending the conversation by saying, "Thank you, sir."

White House aides later said that the two men did not disagree and that something was "lost in translation."

"There was no difference," said James F. Jeffrey, a deputy national security adviser. "It simply came out that way."

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