North Korea Doesn't Agree to Written Nuclear Agreement; Earlier Verbal Assurances Contradicted

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 2008

North Korea balked yesterday at agreeing to a written plan for verifying its nuclear claims, handing President Bush a diplomatic defeat and the incoming Obama administration a new diplomatic headache.

Bush took a gamble two months ago when he agreed to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, based on spoken assurances from Pyongyang that it had agreed to a verification plan. At the time, there were signs North Korea was planning to restart its shuttered nuclear plant or even conduct a nuclear test, and administration officials were desperate to avoid a crisis in the final months of Bush's presidency.

U.S. officials at the time asserted that North Korea had privately bent on two key issues: potential access to facilities not included in Pyongyang's nuclear declaration and permission for inspectors to take environmental samples from facilities to determine how much plutonium had been produced. The State Department publicly distributed a statement titled "U.S.-North Korean Understandings on Verification" that listed six key points, but it declined to release the text of the claimed agreement.

Yesterday, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill told reporters in Beijing that four days of talks this week had failed because North Korea "was not ready to reach a verification protocol with all the standards that are required." But U.S. officials acknowledge now that most of the purported agreements announced two months ago were simply oral understandings between Hill and his North Korean counterparts.

Before Bush announced he was taking North Korea off the state sponsors of terrorism list -- a significant diplomatic carrot for Pyongyang -- Hill submitted a memorandum to North Korea's mission to the United Nations outlining his understanding of the oral agreements. The North Korean officials did not object to Hill's summary, U.S. officials said, but they would not commit to it in writing.

Hill's gambit was controversial among senior Bush administration officials. But in the end, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice persuaded Bush to lift the sanctions based on Hill's claims of a spoken deal with Pyongyang.

"We got a commitment," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday. "And we have very, very precise notes about those commitments. And we committed those to paper and also in the form of a memorandum, for the record, if you will." McCormack added that North Korea also privately confirmed its deal with Hill to other nations participating in the disarmament talks.

But after the sanctions were lifted, North Korea very quickly denied that it had made any such agreement, particularly on the issue of taking samples from nuclear sites. The Korean Central News Agency, the official North Korean news service, last week issued a commentary on the debate, noting that "the agreement includes no paragraph referring to the collection of samples. . . . To demand what is not mentioned in the written agreement . . . is an infringement upon sovereignty as it is little short of seeking a house search."

Many experts believe North Korea has refused to commit to a written verification plan because it can renegotiate the whole issue with the incoming Obama administration, allowing Pyongyang to seek more concessions. It is also possible that North Korea may never openly admit that it will permit the taking of samples but that it may become amenable to allowing it once the verification process begins. (Last year, North Korea unexpectedly gave aluminum tube samples to U.S. officials, who carried them back in their suitcases.)

"There is no precedent in the history of negotiations with North Korea to suggest that a deferred problem will be fulfilled," said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser to Bush. "They will hold on to this card, probably to drive up the price for the next administration."

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