With the fragile framework of a nuclear agreement in hand, President Bush's envoys now plan to push North Korea to begin disclosing the extent and locations of its secret development programs right away to test the sincerity of Pyongyang's commitment to give up its pursuit of atomic weapons.
As they plot their next step after the surprise deal reached during the six-nation talks in Beijing last month, Bush and his advisers want to translate the pact's ambiguous language into a more concrete set of obligations, senior officials said. By pressing for tangible actions by Pyongyang, though, the officials acknowledge that they could aggravate the often-prickly North Koreans and jeopardize the precarious accord.
"Our objective is to build on the consensus among the five to get North Korea to make a more solid commitment to dismantlement, and to begin working on the implementation procedures for dismantling their nuclear weapons and nuclear programs," said a senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing administration policy. "There's going to have to be a forthcoming attitude by the North Koreans to make this credible. We're going to be looking for that kind of commitment."
"The first step is to declare what they have. And we hope the declaration is complete," Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, said yesterday at the Foreign Press Center. "It's very important that it's complete, because we do have to overcome a lot of mistrust."
Others warned the administration against pressing too hard. "If we go into it with the attitude of 'Okay, we've got a deal, now here are the terms of how we move forward' and push it . . . I think it may be a bit too much," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asia. "We need to remember how tenuous this agreement really is."
The Beijing agreement, crafted by the United States and North Korea with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, committed Pyongyang to "abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" and accepting the return of international inspections under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In exchange, the other five agreed to provide security guarantees and economic incentives and "to discuss at an appropriate time" providing a light-water nuclear reactor for civilian power.
On paper, it seemed a major breakthrough after two years of deadlock, antipathy and harsh language. But the language left much open to interpretation. North Korea immediately insisted that the deal meant that the United States should provide the reactor promptly, while Washington made it clear it would not even broach the subject until all nuclear weapons and related programs have been dismantled.
That disagreement will figure large in November, when the six nations are scheduled to return to the negotiating table to tackle the next steps and define what they meant in their sometimes vaguely worded joint statement of principles in September. "The second round is going to be much more difficult than the first," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on East Asia.
The Bush administration plans to press North Korea to prove its commitment to the agreement by publicly acknowledging the existence of its uranium enrichment program and to eventually produce a full declaration of all of its nuclear weapons and programs, officials said. Eventually, a timeline of reciprocal steps would be developed, but probably not in November.
North Korea "has not wanted to have all of its obligations front-loaded with all of our obligations back-loaded. So we have to figure something out," Hill said. If North Korea is "truly, truly prepared" to abandon its programs quickly, he said he thinks "we can find a solution to the sequencing problem."
The officials said they want North Korea to follow the model of Libya, which voluntarily gave up its incomplete nuclear development program, rather than set up another Iraq, with inspectors scouring every cave looking for it.
"It is not our intention that we -- that is, the collective 'we', the international community -- would go into the DPRK and begin a sort of Easter egg hunt for weapons and for programs," Hill said, using the initials for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's formal name. "We expect the DPRK as part of its voluntary commitments to cooperate with us."
The administration, another official added, also wants to "lay the groundwork for a broadening of the discussion" beyond nuclear weapons to issues such as missiles, conventional arms, human rights and a peace accord formally ending the Korean War of the 1950s. But another official added that the U.S. side will be careful not to allow such issues to endanger the nuclear deal. "You can't lose the focus on the proximate issue," he said.
The U.S. side does not want to bog down in a discussion of a future light-water reactor but will emphasize that South Korea could begin construction immediately on a power plant to provide electricity to North Korea, with the final energy delivery contingent upon Pyongyang following through on dismantling its weapons.
"The Bush administration will have to try to build an incentive structure so that, at every step of the way, North Korea is better off continuing the process instead of bailing out of it," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.
At the same time, he said, the U.S. team needs to pin down North Korea on concrete steps. "With North Korea, even when you do nail it down, you don't know they're going to follow through consistently," he said. "But if you don't, you don't have any hope of reaching even first base."