By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008
The unraveling of the landmark deal to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs began just weeks after its high point -- the televised destruction of the cooling tower at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor in late June -- when U.S. negotiators presented Pyongyang with a sweeping plan for verifying its claims about its nuclear programs.
Under the proposal, heavily influenced by the State Department's arms control experts, the U.S. requested "full access to all materials" at sites that might have had a nuclear purpose in the past. It sought "full access to any site, facility or location" deemed relevant to the nuclear program, including military facilities, according to the four-page document, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. Investigators would be able to take photographs and make videos, remain on site as long as necessary, make repeated visits and collect and remove samples.
The United States pressed ahead with the proposal despite warnings from China, Russia and other countries that it was asking too much of the xenophobic North Koreans, officials said. North Korea immediately balked and the once-promising talks were at an impasse.
The verification plan, details of which have not been revealed before, has deeply split the Bush administration, officials said. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, and his aides were opposed to making such an opening bid, but they were overruled at higher levels.
Some senior officials, in fact, viewed the verification plan as a key test of North Korean intentions. Hill had pushed the envelope repeatedly during months of negotiations, persuading President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to scale back demands and to make concessions to North Korea that more hard-line officials found unacceptable.
U.S. verification experts were not even closely consulted when the six nations involved in the talks concluded a vague agreement on how verification might proceed. But they were given the lead role in drafting the U.S. document presented to North Korea in July.
"It's possible North Korea always intended to say no, but they never had to until now," said an official who pushed for a far-reaching verification plan as a way to test whether negotiators were being "led down the primrose path."
From North Korea's perspective, the emphasis on a verification plan is a betrayal of the deal that resulted in the toppling of the cooling tower, according to Foreign Ministry statements. North Korea submitted a declaration of its nuclear programs -- though it revealed less than the United States originally sought -- and, in exchange, the president was to remove it from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
"I am notifying Congress of my intent to rescind North Korea's designation as a state sponsor of terror in 45 days," Bush announced June 26. "The next 45 days will be an important period for North Korea to show its seriousness of its cooperation. We will work through the six-party talks to develop a comprehensive and rigorous verification protocol. And during this period, the United States will carefully observe North Korea's actions -- and act accordingly."
But there was no written document linking North Korea's performance on verification to its removal from the terror list, sources said. So when Bush let the 45 days pass without any action, North Korea denounced what it called "obviously a violation of the principle of 'action for action' essential for realizing denuclearization."
Asked recently if there was a written agreement concerning North Korea's performance on verification, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack sidestepped the question, saying: "We're confident they [North Korean officials] understand what they need to do."
North Korea had been warning visitors privately for months that it would object to an extensive inspection proposal. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a nonpartisan research group, who visited North Korea this year, said Pyongyang made it clear it did not want the International Atomic Energy Agency involved. North Korean officials also did not want visits to their military sites and were distressed to learn how U.S. scientists were able to pick up minute nuclear particles from samples of tubes and documents previously provided to U.S. officials, Albright said.
Albright, a former weapons inspector in Iraq who reviewed the U.S. proposal for The Post, said it would be "completely unacceptable to any country's sovereignty" and amounted to "a verification wish list" and "a license to spy on any military site they have." He said Iraq agreed to such provisions in the 1990s only after it was bombed.
North Korea, in its declaration, listed about 15 nuclear facilities, including sites at Yongbyon and universities. An official involved in drafting the U.S. verification proposal, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations, said the plan was based on previous inspection proposals, such as the one that resulted in Libya giving up its weapons in 2003.
He said North Korea submitted a counterproposal in which it agreed to a number of U.S. demands but objected to two key elements -- visits to undeclared facilities and the taking of samples.
"Those are basic principles of verification," the official said. "I don't know what we could have done except say to the North Koreans, 'I believe you.' You can't just kick this can down the street."
Albright agreed that North Korea must concede on the taking of samples, which he called one of the most powerful tools inspectors have. "They have always been uptight about it," he said.
In August, the U.S. submitted a counterproposal that was somewhat more vague than the first plan but retained key elements. But in late August, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il suffered an apparent stroke. North Korean officials have not responded to the counterproposal.
Instead, the government has barred international inspectors and their surveillance equipment from the reactor site and indicated that within a week it would once again begin reprocessing spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.