A Ticking Clock on N. Korea

By David Ignatius
Sunday, March 23, 2008

For many months, Bush administration officials have been imagining a valedictory conclusion to their long-running negotiations with North Korea: Pyongyang would make a "complete and correct declaration" about its nuclear program, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would travel to North Korea to celebrate normalization of relations with a former member of the "axis of evil."

But the North Korea breakthrough isn't happening, and administration officials know they are running out of time before President Bush leaves office. The New York Philharmonic has come and gone from its Feb. 26 concert in Pyongyang -- without Rice there to add a nimble-fingered piano accompaniment, as some analysts had predicted.

An agreement remains tantalizingly close: The North Koreans are disabling their reactor at Yongbyon, which was a key part of the denuclearization agreement announced last October. And there are hopes that if Pyongyang will finally deliver the promised nuclear declaration, then negotiations can move to a final (and even more difficult) phase of bargaining over destruction of North Korea's handful of nuclear weapons and an estimated 30 to 40 kilograms of plutonium.

What is blocking this breakthrough is North Korea's refusal to explain its nuclear relationship with Syria. This remains one of the murkiest foreign policy issues of the past year, but administration policymakers, intelligence officials and other analysts recently shed some new light on what happened.

The mystery centers on Israel's Sept. 6 bombing of a facility in Syria. This was to be the site of a nuclear reactor, U.S. officials believe. North Korea had made a secret agreement to provide technical know-how and some materials for the reactor, although not fissile material. The Israelis destroyed the reactor site -- but neither they nor the United States made any public statement about the attack.

The silence in Washington and Tel Aviv led some analysts to think that the Bush administration was afraid of blowing up the six-party talks with North Korea -- by disclosing the evidence of Pyongyang's role as a proliferator. That may have been a small factor, but I'm told that the larger issue was a fear in Israel -- especially, it's said, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- that disclosure would wreck the chances for serious peace negotiations with Syria, which the Israelis were exploring through back channels.

For Israel and Syria, it appears, September was a classic Middle East moment of talking and fighting simultaneously. Since then, hopes in Israel for a breakthrough with Syria appear to have faded.

Back to the North Korea negotiations: Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia who has deftly managed the six-party talks, began demanding an accounting of the Syrian connection last fall. The North Korean response, as recently as Hill's March 13 meeting in Geneva with North Korean negotiator Kim Gye Gwan, has essentially been: "We never did it, and we won't do it again." That is, the North Koreans have promised that they have no current nuclear cooperation with Damascus and won't have any in the future, but they won't discuss what may have happened in the past. That's not enough, Hill has insisted.

U.S. officials have begun to confirm publicly that they have hard intelligence about North Korean proliferation. Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, said in Feb. 7 testimony to the House intelligence committee: "While Pyongyang denies a program for uranium enrichment and also denies its proliferation activities, we know North Korea continues to engage in both." In a telephone interview last week, a senior intelligence official confirmed the Syria nuclear connection, saying: "Our suspicions are justified and valid. A lot of due diligence was done on this. People are confident."

Hill expressed the administration's frustration over North Korea's foot-dragging in comments to reporters last week. "We are at a point where we really do need to make progress soon to wrap up" the current phase of negotiations, he said. He complained that the North Koreans "seem to think I have nothing better to do in my time or in my life than to keep asking them questions." Hill has privately rebuffed Pyongyang's request for another round after the Geneva session, saying that there's no point in meeting if the stalemate continues.

A full peace agreement with North Korea remains a worthy prize. It would stabilize a dangerous region and cement the cooperation between China and the United States that made the six-party talks possible. But, as with so many of its foreign policy goals, the Bush administration is nearly out of time. It doesn't make sense to break off the talks when they are so close to success, but then, it doesn't make sense to continue with a charade, either.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company