Administration Pushing to Salvage Accord With N. Korea

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

A top U.S. envoy is planning to travel to North Korea this week in a last-ditch effort to salvage a faltering accord to end Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs, sources said yesterday.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill is seeking to arrange the rare visit in the wake of North Korea's statement last week that it plans to begin reprocessing spent fuel rods into the raw material needed for nuclear weapons. The announcement was a setback for the Bush administration's efforts to claim progress in restraining North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack did not respond to a request for comment on Hill's travel plans. During meetings at the United Nations last week, Hill and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with key officials from countries involved in the six-nation negotiating group on North Korea's weapons.

"We all are sending strong messages to the North Koreans that they should stop any reversals that they are carrying out," Rice told the Reuters news agency in an interview Friday.

Hill visited North Korea twice in 2007, after a long period in which U.S. officials were barred from substantive bilateral contacts with North Korean officials.

With great fanfare in June, North Korea blew up the cooling tower attached to its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon as a way of signaling its commitment to ending its weapons programs. North Korea also provided a declaration on the extent of its plutonium production, a key demand of the United States.

In the preceding eight months, North Korea had also taken steps to disable key parts of the reactor and related facilities, which U.S. officials had said would take as long as a year to restart.

But North Korea appears able to more quickly begin the reprocessing -- possibly in a matter of weeks. This would allow it to add to its stockpile of nearly 40 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for at least six weapons.

The talks have faltered because North Korea has refused to accept U.S. proposals for verifying its declaration, as well as answering questions about a possible separate uranium-based program and North Korea's links to a Syrian reactor destroyed last year by Israel. Because of the dispute, President Bush has not followed through on a pledge to remove North Korea from the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism, infuriating Pyongyang.

Some officials argue that the initial verification plan was too harsh and spooked North Korea. Others say North Korea never seriously sought to negotiate an alternative, with its counterproposal failing to meet the bare minimum for verification, such as allowing environmental sampling.

Under one idea being considered by Hill and his aides -- though not yet approved by more senior officials -- North Korea would give China, the host of the talks, a plan that includes sampling, access to key sites and other provisions sought by the United States. Bush would then provisionally remove North Korea from the terrorism list, and after that China would announce North Korean acceptance of the verification plan. This would allow North Korea to save face and assert that the delisting occurred before the verification plan was in place.

"We have to have a verification protocol that is going to give us confidence that we are able to verify the declaration and that we're able to answer certain unresolved questions," Rice told Reuters.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company