Message to U.S. Preceded Nuclear Declaration by North Korea

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By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Just days before North Korea delivered to China last week its long-awaited declaration on its plutonium-based nuclear programs, Pyongyang privately acknowledged the United States' long-standing concerns about alleged uranium-enrichment activities and possible proliferation to Syria, U.S. and Asian officials said yesterday.

U.S. officials have made only cryptic references to Pyongyang's private message to Washington, in part because it represents a significant scaling back of the administration's goals and ambitions for North Korea's declaration.

Originally, the administration had promised that Pyongyang would come clean on its uranium-enrichment activities, not merely "acknowledge" U.S. concerns. The unusual move to separate vexing issues from the declaration was essential to help clear the way for North Korea to offer its declaration and for President Bush to begin removing some sanctions against North Korea.

The United States also agreed to pay North Korea $2.5 million -- down from $5 million originally demanded by Pyongyang -- for the televised destruction last week of the steel-reinforced concrete cooling tower attached to the Yongbyon nuclear facility, congressional sources said. Officially, North Korea must still provide an itemized bill for the work, said to be technically difficult to avoid having pieces of the cooling tower fall into a nearby nuclear waste pond.

When the State Department announced in October that an agreement had been reached on receiving North Korea's declaration, it issued a "fact sheet" stating that North Korea had "agreed to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs -- including clarification regarding the uranium issue -- by the end of the year."

But sources said that within the closely held 60-page declaration, in which North Korea states it possesses 37 kilograms of plutonium, there is no discussion of the uranium issue, except for a brief reference to the U.S.-North Korean side deal on acknowledgments. The declaration provides a list of nuclear-related sites, but none are clearly identified as weapons sites.

"The declaration does reference the discussions that the United States had with North Korea on uranium enrichment and proliferation, but it is not appropriate for me to discuss the details at this time," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

The gap between the administration's initial objectives and the final results has led to sharp criticism in some quarters in Washington. "What we really have is sort of a Potemkin village of U.S. policy in which there's a great deal of difference between these initial bold pledges and then subsequent reality often behind the scenes," Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the Heritage Foundation, said yesterday at a forum to assess the deal.

The chief U.S. negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, acknowledged yesterday that the North Korea deal is "a partially finished product."

"We have to keep working on issues that have still not been fully disclosed, although not denied by the North Koreans," he said yesterday at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. But he emphasized that despite the unanswered questions about a uranium-enrichment program, the administration has succeeded in shutting down a dangerous nuclear reactor.

"It was less than a year ago that they were still producing plutonium, and plutonium is what they tested as a nuclear weapon," Hill said. "And plutonium is really, first of all, what we needed to stop their production of, and secondly, what we need to eventually have them abandon."

Uranium enrichment is a different route to producing the fuel for a nuclear weapon, and officials say that questions have only increased in recent weeks about the extent of North Korea's experimentation with the process.

Before acknowledging U.S. concerns, North Korea had consistently denied having any kind of enrichment program. But U.S. officials said traces of highly enriched uranium were recently discovered on some of the 18,000 pages of documents provided by North Korea on its plutonium program, heightening concerns. Hill also said the administration will continue to seek answers to North Korea's involvement in the construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria -- said to be modeled on Yongbyon -- which Israel destroyed last September.

Hill said the administration will spend the next week deciding on the "verification mechanism" to assess North Korea's claims in the declaration. Pyongyang has indicated it will allow visits to facilities, interviews with North Korea specialists, technical sampling and access to documents, so a major test of the accord will be whether North Korea balks at any requests the United States makes.

Last week, Bush set in motion a 45-day process under which North Korea will be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. U.S. officials have suggested the process could be stopped if North Korea proves uncooperative, but few expect that verification of North Korea's declaration will be completed before the 45-day period ends in mid-August.


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