U.S., N. Korea to Work Toward Ending Weapons Impasse

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Top U.S. and North Korean diplomats will gather in Geneva tomorrow amid signs that the two sides, with the help of China, have structured a diplomatic framework that could resolve an impasse that has blocked a deal to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, will meet with North Korean counterpart Kim Gye Gwan for one or two days. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "We're focused on trying to move the process forward."

Under an agreement reached in February 2007, North Korea was to have declared all of its nuclear programs and materials by the end of the year. Pyongyang admitted to possessing 30 to 40 kilograms of plutonium, U.S. officials said, but balked at providing full details about a suspected uranium enrichment program and about whether it had cooperated with Syria in an alleged nuclear program destroyed by Israeli fighters last September.

Now, diplomats said, a possible face-saving solution for North Korea may have been found in which those issues are separated from its initial declaration, such as in statements from Kim to Hill that would become part of the six-nation negotiations. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently signaled the new approach in a statement after talks last month in Asia: "I really have less concern about what form it takes or how many different pieces of paper there may have to be," as long as it results in progress.

Rice and Hill have increasingly focused on North Korea's stockpile of plutonium as the real threat to international security, officials said. But to persuade Pyongyang to abandon the plutonium, obtained from fuel rods in a small nuclear reactor, the administration must first settle the lingering questions concerning uranium enrichment and Syria. Increasingly, top U.S. officials view those as historical issues compared with the immediate proliferation risk posed by plutonium.

North Korea acquired much of its plutonium after the 2002 collapse of a Clinton administration agreement that froze the reactor. The Bush administration accused North Korea of cheating on the deal, citing evidence that Pyongyang had a clandestine uranium-enrichment program. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are different routes to building nuclear weapons.

In a little-noticed speech at Amherst College on Jan. 30, Hill said that U.S. officials had largely concluded that thousands of aluminum tubes acquired by North Korea in 2002 -- which sparked the intelligence finding that Pyongyang was building a large-scale uranium-enrichment program -- were not currently being used to create fissile material.

"We have seen that these tubes are not being used for a centrifuge program," he said, according to an audio recording of the speech on Amherst's Web site. "We had American diplomats go and look at this aluminum that was used and see what they are actually using it for. We actually had American diplomats, people like myself, carry this aluminum back in our suitcases to verify this is the precise aluminum we knew the North Koreans had actually purchased."

Government scientists have discovered traces of enriched uranium on the aluminum samples, suggesting that they may have been used in such a program or that they came in contact with a centrifuge kit that North Korea acquired from a Pakistani smuggling network.

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