By John Pomfret
Monday, November 22, 2010; 8:44 PM
The North Korean government told a team of visiting American experts last week that it would effectively dismantle one of its nuclear weapons programs if the United States again pledged that it had "no hostile intent" toward the government of Kim Jong Il, a member of the delegation said.
Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council, said North Korean officials told him and other visitors that the government in Pyongyang is willing to transfer all of its nuclear fuel rods, which can be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, to a third country. In exchange, North Korea wants to have the United States reiterate its commitment to a joint communique issued by the two countries in October 2007, which included a statement that the United States bears no ill will toward North Korea.
Obama administration officials have reacted coolly to the proposal, which comes amid a flurry of revelations about North Korea's nuclear program and new threats from the government in Pyongyang.
On Saturday, Siegfried Hecker, the leader of an earlier American delegation, issued a report saying that the North Koreans had shown him a facility to enrich uranium and announced that they were building another reactor - confirming long-held U.S. suspicions that North Korea has a two-track program to make nuclear weapons. North Korean officials also hinted to American interlocutors that they would continue missile tests and conduct a third test of a nuclear device if the United States did not resume negotiations with Pyongyang.
The mixture of intimidation, revelations and the airing of a new deal falls into a pattern of North Korean behavior. Over the past month, North Korea has hosted three American delegations - one led by a former senior U.S. official, Charles L. Pritchard; the second led by a nuclear scientist, Hecker; and the most recent led by experts who have long advocated talks with the North. The United States has dispatched Stephen W. Bosworth, its senior envoy on North Korea, to Russia, South Korea, Japan and China to discuss options with its partners following the North's revelations and threats.
"They always float their offers on a sea of threats," said Sigal, who was a member of the third delegation. "But this time they were unusually explicit."
Sigal said his North Korean interlocutors said that if they surrendered the several thousand spent fuel rods - which would effectively halt the country's effort to make nuclear weapons from plutonium - they would expect South Korea to help them produce electricity. The North and the South were engaged in negotiations on this issue until talks collapsed in 2007. The North wants them to resume, Sigal said.
Sigal added that North Korean officials did not rule out discussing their uranium-enrichment program. "They clearly expressed a willingness to stop the program and reverse course," he said.Idea 'not sufficient'
A senior Obama administration official said that he was aware of the new North Korean offer but that the administration was not predisposed to embrace it, partly because of the new revelations about the uranium-enrichment program.
"Their plutonium program would appear not to be their sole vehicle at the moment," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, "so the offer, if there were an offer, concerning facilities nearing the end of their useful life is not sufficient."
"We will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behavior," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday. "As Ambassador Bosworth himself said, this obviously is an issue of concern, not a crisis. We are going to consult with our partners and coordinate a unified response to North Korea's actions."
Hecker was taken to the Yongbyon nuclear facility on Nov. 12. The facility has long been a target of U.S. interest. According to the report he released Saturday, he was taken to a uranium-enrichment facility that he described as "stunning" and "astonishingly modern."
"Instead of seeing a few small cascades of centrifuges, which I believed to exist in North Korea, we saw a modern, clean centrifuge plant of more than a thousand centrifuges all neatly aligned and plumbed below us," he wrote.History of concerns
Successive U.S. administrations have been concerned about the presence of a uranium-enrichment program in the North. The George W. Bush administration first raised alarms about a program in 2002 and then discovered new evidence pointing to such a program during negotiations about shutting down the Yongbyon plant in 2007-2008, former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview Monday.
Hadley said the evidence - which included in-depth scientific analysis of enriched-uranium traces that were discovered on smelted aluminum tubes and reactor documents - was obtained by U.S. diplomats during the negotiations with Pyongyang. North Korea had provided the materials in an effort to rebut allegations that it had a uranium program but "actually raised our concerns and gave us new insights," he said.
Hadley said the information convinced the Bush administration to push for a comprehensive verification program, but that was rejected by North Korea and negotiations stalled. "We left the stage with considerable concerns about the enrichment program, which have only been borne out in the last two years," Hadley said.
Victor Cha, an expert on Asian security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who worked with Hadley during the Bush administration, said the choreography of the past few weeks is part of a plan by North Korea to be accepted as a nuclear weapons state.
"In many ways this is our worse nightmare," he said. "They've shown that they've developed things beyond people's expectations and in a facility that we've been looking at for 20 years. The administration has really got its work cut out for it."
Staff writer Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.