N. Korea Misses Deadline, but U.S. Response Is Restrained

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

TOKYO, Jan. 1 -- North Korea failed to fulfill its October promise to declare all its nuclear programs by the end of 2007 -- and the United States did not make a big deal out of it.

The Bush administration expressed disappointment on Monday with the missed deadline, which Western officials had been predicting for several weeks. But the White House noted that the government of Kim Jong Il has made significant progress in disabling a nuclear reactor in cooperation with U.S. experts. It said negotiations would continue.

"I'm not going to put a deadline on it," said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel. "We think there is an opportunity to move forward."

While saying that North Korea cannot "pretend to give a complete declaration" of its weapons program, Stanzel noted that the United States itself is responsible for some of the delays in the disabling of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor -- for safety and security reasons.

"The United States slowed down part of the disablement process," Stanzel said. "We wanted it to be done in a safe and secure manner."

The relatively muted U.S. reaction to North Korea's failure to meet the deadline is part of a major shift over the past year in how the Bush administration approaches the secretive Stalinist state.

The trigger for the shift appears to have been North Korea's detonation of a nuclear device in October 2006. Since then, the fist-shaking that characterized much of the first six years of the Bush administration's North Korea policy has been replaced by a dogged insistence on negotiations and by offers of aid and other concessions -- contingent on verified moves to get rid of nuclear facilities.

North Korea made no report of its missed deadline. In a New Year's message, the North said it would "make earnest efforts for stability on the Korean Peninsula and peace in the world."

Last February, in return for energy assistance and some political concessions, the government in Pyongyang said it would abandon its nuclear program.

North Korea promised in October to disable its nuclear facilities and list all its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. In return, the United States, South Korea, China and Russia promised about 1 millions tons of oil.

So far, North Korea has received about 150,000 tons of fuel, according to reports in the South Korean news media. U.S. experts have been inside North Korea for nearly two months, watching as North Koreans disable the reactor at Yongbyon.

A sticking point in the declaration of the North's nuclear capacities appears to be a dispute over whether it had a uranium enrichment program -- Pyongyang says it did not, while the United States has found some evidence that it did.

There are also differences over how much plutonium -- used in making nuclear weapons -- North Korea has managed to manufacture.

A Japanese newspaper quoted North Korean and U.S. officials as saying that the North has reported making about 66 pounds of plutonium, considerably less than U.S. estimates.

In Pyongyang, there appears to be anger and frustration over the U.S. government's reluctance to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.

The Bush administration suggested in October that it would pursue such a removal, but has since made clear that all promises regarding nuclear facilities and programs must first be met.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company