Congress' actions reflect rising concern about the administration's North Korea policy, sparked most recently by Pyongyang's August 31 launch of a multi-stage rocket over Japan (see story) and by the North's continuing work on a massive underground construction project, potentially for use in developing nuclear weapons. According to The Washington Post on August 18, a small group of legislators had been kept apprised of the North Korean digging for several months, but most congressional leaders were not briefed until early August. A congressional staffer said that briefings by some of the president's most senior national security officials left members in both houses and both parties convinced that the administration was "in denial about a major national security problem." According to a minority staffer, the administration has lost credibility with Congress on the North Korea issue and "needs to make a stronger case for the Agreed Framework."
Even before these developments, the Agreed Framework was in jeopardy. Chronically underfinanced by its member-states, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), the consortium that is implementing the U.S. and allied side of the deal, is likely to fail for the second consecutive year to supply North Korea with the mandated 500,000 tons of fuel oil by October 20, the end of its supply year. As of mid-September only about 43 percent of the total had been delivered, and money for the remainder had yet to be pledged by KEDO's member-states. Since late April, North Korea has been venting its frustration with U.S. performance under the agreement by halting the "canning" of spent fuel from its 5-megawatt gas-graphite reactor, conducting maintenance activities at its Yongbyon reprocessing facility, and regularly threatening to withdraw from the agreement. (See ACT, June/July 1998.)
Hoping to salvage its North Korea policy, the Clinton administration announced on September 10 that two weeks of negotiations with Pyongyang in late August and early September had produced an agreement to hold additional discussions on issues of mutual concern. In particular, North Korea accepted Washington's demand to negotiate terms for on-site inspection of the underground construction site, agreed to discuss steps it must take to be removed from the State Department's list of state-sponsors of terrorism, and will return for another round of four-party talks with the United States, China and South Korea aimed at ending the state of war on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea will also allow the Department of Energy to complete the cleanup and storage of spent fuel in Yongbyon that was halted in late April, and appears to have accepted a U.S. commitment to complete the delivery of heavy fuel oil by the end of the calendar year rather than the scheduled October 20 date. Additionally, Pyongyang agreed to resume discussions about its development and proliferation of ballistic missiles and their technology. The missile talks, slated to begin October 1, will be the first such discussions since North Korea cancelled a scheduled round of missile talks in August 1997 following the defection of two diplomats.