By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
North Korea will begin disabling key nuclear facilities within weeks and start disclosing details of its nuclear programs under a six-nation agreement to be announced this week, U.S. and Asian diplomats said yesterday.
Success on the deal appears to have been aided by a "side understanding" between Washington and Pyongyang that could accelerate the removal of North Korea from a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The United States also appears willing to accept, initially, more limited action to disable three key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon than it originally sought, with the understanding that additional work to incapacitate the facilities would occur later. In exchange, North Korea is expected to disclose the extent of its weapons-grade plutonium, including how much was used in a nuclear test last year.
North Korea also will allow nuclear experts from Russia, China and the United States to examine aluminum tubes procured from Russia that could have been used in a uranium-enrichment program, diplomats said.
But diplomats said it is unclear whether North Korea will admit to acquiring centrifuges for use in such a program, as the United States has charged. The Bush administration in 2002 accused North Korea of having a clandestine uranium-enrichment program, and the accusation led to the collapse of a 1994 deal that had frozen the facilities at Yongbyon.
The flurry of diplomatic activity, coming nearly a year after North Korea shocked Asia by conducting its first nuclear test, demonstrates both increasing flexibility by the Bush administration in its waning months and increased willingness by North Korea to close parts of its nuclear program for potential economic benefits.
The Bush administration had once insisted on "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" before North Korea could receive benefits, but it has significantly moderated its stance since the North Korean nuclear test.
China plans to release the text of the agreement as early as today, after President Bush formally gave his approval yesterday during a breakfast meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief negotiator; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Vice President Cheney; and three other top officials. Hill flew back from Beijing, the site of talks that included South Korea, Japan and Russia, to brief Bush on the details.
Removing North Korea from the terrorism list would be a largely symbolic move, but it is highly prized by the North Korean government. It is problematic for Japan, which wants North Korea to first settle questions concerning the abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. North Korea has pressed for an exact date, but diplomats said no date appears in the final text.
Pyongyang also wants to be free of financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act, a 1917 law that allows for a near-total economic boycott of countries at war with the United States.
Hill said that the terrorism list is a "delicate issue" and that being "too explicit about when it might happen is not helpful in terms of Japanese-North Korean relations. We are trying to handle it with sensitivity."
Still, he acknowledged that Pyongyang and Washington have a series of side understandings that amplify and clarify language in the six-party text. He indicated that one of those understandings encourages North Korea to be more forthcoming with the Japanese about the abductions.
"If they want a future in the region, they need to deal with Japan," Hill said.
North Korean negotiator Kim Gye Gwan told reporters in Beijing that "the timing is specified" for exiting the list, but South Korean envoy Chun Yung Woo said there is no clear-cut schedule. He said there are references in the text to events taking place by the end of the year. "It's laid out so that it looks that way to North Korean eyes," he told reporters in Seoul.
A senior Japanese diplomat said that Japan has made clear its concern about a quick removal from the terrorism list, even though U.S. officials believe the abduction issue is not directly relevant to the criteria for inclusion on the list. "They would not sacrifice the U.S.-Japan relationship for the U.S.-North Korea relationship," the Japanese diplomat said.
Hill said North Korea is expected to make an initial declaration about its nuclear programs by the end of this month, though he predicted it would be incomplete. He said the various parties would negotiate over the text, with the aim that North Korea would make full disclosure by the end of the year.
He confirmed that North Korea is expected to reveal the extent of its plutonium production, including efforts in 2003 and 2005 that gave it enough fissile material for as many at 10 weapons. He declined to discuss the North Korean willingness to allow experts to examine the aluminum tubes.
Hill said that North Korea would begin disabling three facilities at Yongbyon -- the nuclear reactor, a fuel fabrication facility and a plutonium reprocessing unit. He said initial steps could be as basic as removing spent fuel rods from the reactor, but that North Korea would later do more to exceed the requirements of the 1994 agreement.
Hill said that when the 1994 deal collapsed, North Korea was able to restart the reactor in two months. "We want something more than two months but less than five years," the time needed to build a new reactor, Hill said. Other diplomats said the steps envisioned in the agreement would amount to a delay of about a year before North Korea could restart its nuclear programs.
"Our understanding is that disablement does not have to be 100 percent irreversible," the Japanese diplomat said.