To Reach Pact With N. Korea, Bush Adopted an Approach He Had Criticized

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Three years ago this month, President Bush met Democratic challenger John F. Kerry in a debate and declared that Kerry's answer on negotiations with North Korea "made me want to scowl."

Bush said that Kerry was advocating a "naive and dangerous" policy of offering to conduct bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang in parallel with the six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear ambitions. "That's what President Clinton did," Bush asserted, saying Kerry's idea would undermine the six-party talks. Clinton "had bilateral talks with the North Korean, and guess what happened: He [Kim Jong Il] didn't honor the agreement."

If there was any doubt, yesterday's announcement in Beijing of a new agreement with North Korea demonstrates how much Bush has adopted the approach he once condemned. The agreement was reached after bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea, held in parallel with the six-nation talks, just as Kerry had suggested.

Under the deal, North Korea is to begin disabling its core nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and provide a "complete and correct declaration" of all of its nuclear programs by Dec. 31. In exchange, the United States and North Korea will begin cultural exchanges and move toward a "full diplomatic relationship."

Citing the results of bilateral talks held between Pyongyang and Washington last month in Geneva, the six-party agreement strongly suggests that the United States will begin to remove the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism and end sanctions under the 1917 Trading With the Enemy Act by the end of the year "in parallel with" North Korean actions.

The United States even agreed to begin paying the bill for disabling North Korea's nuclear facilities.

Much of the agreement remained vague, including how extensively the facilities will be disabled and how North Korean claims about its nuclear programs will be verified. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, did not directly answer those questions in a conference call with reporters yesterday, especially when he was asked whether the United States was poised to lift the sanctions against Pyongyang by year's end.

"We have a very clear understanding with them," Hill said. Asked to clarify his statement, Hill responded: "A very clear understanding means a very clear understanding."

Not even recent reports of possible North Korean nuclear cooperation with Syria delayed the administration's push for an agreement. In a nod to the concern that Pyongyang might be supplying materials to Damascus -- said to be a factor in an Israeli attack on Syria last month -- the agreement says that North Korea "reaffirmed its commitment not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or know-how."

U.S. officials have suggested that Chinese pressure on North Korea after its nuclear test a year ago had changed the dynamics of the negotiations. But Asian diplomats say Bush's shift is what helped break the deadlock. A Chinese official said this week that China's role was minimal compared with the U.S. decision to finally engage in bilateral talks.

China, in fact, had long urged a "step by step" approach starting first with freezing North Korea's plutonium facilities before moving to more vexing questions such as Pyongyang's interest in uranium enrichment. In 2004, during the presidential campaign, U.S. officials were instructed to firmly reject that approach. This year, the Bush administration signed on to a step-by-step approach that began with a freeze.

Some North Korea experts now worry that the administration may be moving too fast. Gary Samore, a Clinton administration official now at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he was puzzled by the "lack of a process to verify the declaration" on North Korea's nuclear programs.

He said thorough verification would include looking at samples, reviewing operating records and interviewing scientists -- steps North Korea has resisted in the past. "The danger is North Korea may be tempted to get away with a stark declaration," Samore said.

"This violates the basic Reagan arms-control lesson of 'trust but verify,' " said John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who was a top arms-control official during Bush's first term. He said the agreement is "potentially very embarrassing to Bush" if sanctions are lifted before the full extent of North Korea's nuclear activities are verified.

One risk, experts said, is that North Korea could decide to pocket the U.S. concessions while not dismantling its facilities nor giving up its stash of weapons-grade plutonium.

"North Korea holds the trump card now," said Charles L. "Jack" Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute and a former negotiator with North Korea for Bush and President Bill Clinton. He said that, based on his recent discussions with North Korean officials, "my sense is that North Korea thinks they can ask for and get what they want from the Bush administration" because the administration is so eager to demonstrate a diplomatic achievement.

"The North Koreans are rubbing their hands together" with glee, he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company