N. Korea Taking Tougher Stance, Ex-Envoy Warns
Friday, May 30, 2008
Senior North Korean officials recently said that the United States should get used to a nuclear-armed North Korea, and they refused to acknowledge the validity of U.S. concerns about Pyongyang's interest in uranium enrichment or its nuclear collaboration with Syria, according to Charles "Jack" Pritchard, a former top U.S. negotiator with North Korea.
Pritchard's report, based on extensive talks in the North Korean capital, appears to undermine the Bush administration's assertions of progress with the nation and suggests that the nuclear issue will fall squarely in the hands of the next U.S. administration. North Korea, he said, made it clear that it expects the United States to build a new nuclear reactor for the reclusive government in the next three years.
Pritchard, who is now president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, is a well-known specialist on North Korea who held senior posts in the Clinton and Bush administrations. He resigned from the State Department in 2003 because, after endless battles with administration hard-liners, he thought the Bush administration was not serious about ending the impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons. But he said in an interview yesterday that as a result of his discussions in Pyongyang April 22 to 26, he thinks the Bush administration reached a poor agreement.
"It is a weak handoff that will cause the next administration more problems than it solves," Pritchard said.
Both Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic front-runner, have raised questions about the agreement in recent weeks, with both calling for "tougher diplomacy."
The Korea Economic Institute is a think tank funded largely by the South Korean government, but Pritchard was speaking in his capacity as a longtime expert on North Korea.
State Department officials dismissed Pritchard's report, saying that North Korea often takes a tougher stance in conversations with private-sector analysts to enhance its negotiating position.
Under a tentative accord reached by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill in Singapore last month, North Korea agreed to disclose the extent of plutonium production at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, including providing 18,000 pages of records. But, in a side accord, it pledged only to "acknowledge" U.S. concerns about uranium enrichment (another path to nuclear weapons) and about North Korea's help in building a nuclear reactor in Syria that Israeli jets destroyed last September.
Pritchard said he questioned Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's chief negotiator, and another senior official, Li Gun, closely about the agreement reached in Singapore. They said that while they promised to be "very cooperative" in helping the United States verify its claims about plutonium, they were not required to disclose information about facilities that fabricate plutonium metal or weaponize the metal; they also would not disclose how many nuclear weapons North Korea possesses.
Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, in the Japanese Diet, recently said that not including those elements would make North Korea's declaration unacceptable to Japan, one of the six nations participating in the nuclear talks. A State Department official said North Korea's assertion on the plutonium metal facility was not true.
Moreover, the North Koreans told Pritchard that they would not acknowledge whether U.S. allegations about uranium enrichment or Syria were valid. In fact, the officials emphatically denied that North Korea had a uranium-enrichment program or any role in the Syrian reactor -- on the very day when the CIA briefed Congress and the media on the evidence it had collected about the Syria project.
Pritchard said North Korea made a "strategic decision" two years ago that it had harvested enough plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor and would shut it down. The reactor and related facilities since then have been partly disabled. North Korea told Pritchard that the next phase, dismantling the facilities, will take three years. During that period, they said, they expect the United States to complete a light-water reactor promised under a Clinton-era accord that was later nullified.
When Pritchard asked when North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons, he said he was told: "The United States should get used to us as a nuclear weapons state." North Korean officials asserted that they would consider talking about giving up atomic weapons only after "full and final normalization" of relations.
Hill, the chief negotiator, told reporters earlier this week in Beijing that "obviously, completing everything by the end of the year will be a challenge."