Hill called the current impasse one of "these bumps in the road. We have had these missed deadlines but that ultimately we have been able to continue with the progress."
In Beijing, Hill said the North Koreans haven't yet accepted the openness the process requires: "I think there is concern on [North Korea's] part that to acknowledge certain activities would invite additional questioning on our part and further scrutiny on things." Adds another official, "These things are not necessarily that you snap your fingers and they happen."
One part of the process that apparently is going well is the "disablement" of the Yongbyon nuclear reactor complex—also a key, early requirement that is to set the stage for North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons. Disablement—rendering the equipment unusable in the short run—was supposed to have been finished by the end of last year. But the slowdown is largely a result of safety concerns by U.S. officials over discharging radioactive fuel from the reactor and other technical moves. A State Department official says that seven or eight of the 11 envisioned steps to disablement have been taken.
The more serious delay—on the declaration—has renewed a debate among policymakers and in U.S. intelligence circles about whether Kim Jong Il has not yet made "a strategic choice" to abandon nuclear weapons in return for economic and political benefits. Some fear that he is now playing for time, trying to outwait a lame-duck administration for one that might be willing to improve the terms of the deal.
Delays also run the risk of introducing new tensions between North Korea and South Korea, where a more conservative president who is more skeptical of Pyongyang's intentions will take office on February 25.
U.S. officials still hope that disarmament can be completed by the time Bush leaves office. They will need not only patience, but perhaps some luck, to do it.