U.S., NK Seek Compromise on Nuclear Declaration

Peter Crail

During an April 8 meeting in Singapore, U.S. and North Korean nuclear envoys appeared to make headway toward resolving a stalemate regarding North Korea's declaration of its nuclear activities.

Disagreement over this declaration has stalled implementation of an October 2007 agreement of the six-party talks involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, and the United States in which North Korea agreed to provide "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs" and disable its Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex by the end of 2007. (See ACT, November 2007. ) In return for these efforts, the six parties agreed that Pyongyang would receive economic assistance, and the United States agreed to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list and to stop punishing it under Trading with the Enemy Act.

The meeting followed an inconclusive March meeting in Geneva in which Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan were unable to find a compromise to address the declaration. (See ACT, April 2008. )

The key disagreement relates to how the declaration will address suspicions that North Korea pursued a uranium-enrichment program and provided covert nuclear assistance to other countries, in particular Syria. North Korea continues to deny ever having engaged in such activities while Washington believes that both activities continue. The October 2007 agreement specifically requires North Korea to address these two issues as part of its declaration. The proposed compromises have been aimed at ensuring that Washington's and Pyongyang's accounts of these two activities are not in contradiction.

For example, in regard to Pyongyang's apparent nuclear cooperation with Syria, a senior administration official stated during an April 25 background briefing that Washington hopes "at a minimum" that the North Koreans "do not try to deny it."

U.S. officials have indicated that Washington expects the declaration to focus on North Korea's plutonium-based weapons program. Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian affairs for the National Security Council, told reporters April 17 that what Washington expects in the declaration is an accounting of "the plutonium cycle that led to nuclear weapons." He specifically noted that this expectation includes Yongbyon, as well as other facilities "from the iron ore enrichment all the way to the nuclear test sites."

Following the Singapore meeting, Hill briefed a number of congressional committees in mid-April regarding the declaration process tentatively agreed to with Pyongyang.

Reuters reported April 11 and Arms Control Today confirmed with congressional sources that the declaration process described by Hill would consist of three parts: a declaration provided by North Korea regarding its plutonium program, a U.S. "bill of particulars" detailing Washington's suspicions of a North Korean uranium-enrichment program and Pyongyang's nuclear proliferation to other countries, and a North Korean understanding of the U.S. concerns.

During an April 14 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino stated that she believed President George W. Bush agreed to the deal made in Singapore.

It is unclear whether the U.S. bill of particulars and North Korea's accounting regarding the uranium-enrichment and proliferation issues will be a public arrangement. When asked April 17 whether the handling of these two issues would be part of a public accounting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded that "not everything in diplomacy is public." She added that there would still be a means to account for and verify the claims.

In order to begin negotiations on ways to verify North Korea's declaration regarding its plutonium program, an interagency U.S. delegation traveled to North Korea April 22-24 to meet with Kim and other officials. Following the talks, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that "progress was made" during the discussions.

North Korea told U.S. officials in November 2007 that it separated about 30 kilograms of plutonium using its Yongbyon facilities. Estimates of North Korea's separated plutonium amounts range from 30 to 50 kilograms, enough for six to 12 weapons. Pyongyang has agreed to provide the production records of its Yongbyon reactor in order to verify its plutonium-production claims.

Congress Set to Influence U.S. North Korea Policy

The U.S. agreements with North Korea will require that Congress appropriate funds to allow Washington to dismantle Pyongyang's plutonium-based weapons program once the disablement process is complete. Current U.S. legislation bars U.S. agencies from funding major nonhumanitarian assistance efforts in North Korea. (See ACT, January/February 2008. ) The administration is also required to notify Congress of its decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would then occur so long as lawmakers do not block this removal.

Amid this need for congressional support, the administration has come under increasing fire, in particular from Republicans, for its approach to North Korea. Some supporters fear that the opposition could jeopardize some of the U.S. concessions to Pyongyang and the negotiating process.

One of the most vocal opponents to the administration's North Korea policy, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has opposed removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Congressional Quarterly quoted Ros-Lehtinen April 24 as stating that removal from the terrorism list would only give North Korea "a lot of leverage in negotiations with other countries." Ros-Lehtinen introduced legislation in September 2007 that would maintain North Korea on the terrorism list until a number of additional conditions were met by Pyongyang.

This opposition became more pronounced following congressional briefings by the intelligence community April 24 regarding suspected North Korean assistance for a covert Syrian nuclear reactor. Reacting to the administration's briefings on North Korean-Syrian nuclear cooperation, Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argued that the administration's delay in more broadly sharing information on Pyongyang's proliferation to Syria with Congress "jeopardizes any type of the agreement [the administration] may come up with" in regard to North Korea.

Nonetheless, majority Democrats appear largely supportive of the administration's dealings with Pyongyang. A Democratic congressional source told Arms Control Today April 24 that Democrats "will remain generally supportive" due to their personal regard for Hill and their criticism of the administration for "ignoring diplomacy" during its first five years in office.  

Several Democratic lawmakers remarked following the briefings on the apparent Syrian reactor that the evidence of North Korean assistance demonstrated the need to address the issue in the six-party talks. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a press statement April 24 saying that the North Korean assistance to Syria "underscores the need for pursuing the talks," to address North Korea's nuclear program and its proliferation, and called for Congress to waive the legislative restrictions that would limit the U.S. ability to dismantle Pyongyang's nuclear facilities. He cautioned against lifting sanctions against North Korea, however, unless the United States was able to confirm that Pyongyang "is no longer in the proliferation business."

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