Bush Pressured to Move on North Korea Disarmament
Two weeks after North Korea missed a deadline to begin verifiably stopping its nuclear work, pressure is building on the Bush administrationand other countries in the six-nation Korean nuclear talkseither to prod the unpredictable regime into getting on with the process of disarmament or to reassess the deal.
Two senior officialsSecretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top negotiator in the talks, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hillhave placed a large policy bet on negotiating with the North through the six-party mechanism and on its principal achievement to date: a February 13 deal that is supposed to serve as an implementation plan for Pyongyang's denuclearization in exchange for energy, economic, and political benefits.
U.S. critics of Rice's strategy see the delays in North Korea's compliance as validating their doubts about doing deals with the secretive regime. And President Bush suggested Friday that time is limited before turning to new pressures on the North.
Though it was not part of the February 13 deal, the North Koreans demanded that a separate financial dispute involving U.S. Treasury Department sanctions against a Macao-based bank accused of complicity in Pyongyang's money-laundering had to be resolved in its favor. In what most observers saw as a major concession, Treasury agreed to resolve the case quickly, and later it urged the Macao authorities to unfreeze some $25 million in North Korean-linked accounts.
That was done. But mysteriously, the North Koreans have not withdrawn much, if any, of the money. And they insist they will not begin shutting down their nuclear reactor at Yongbyonwhich produces plutonium for weaponsor admit international inspectors or even resume the six-party talks until they have the money in hand.
U.S. officials say they are trying to be patient and not issuing any threats or deadlines. But in a meeting with North Korean diplomats in New York earlier this week, says one senior administration official, the message was, "We can't wait forever." This official says the North Koreans offered no serious explanation for why Pyongyang has not yet withdrawn its funds.
And that unexplained delay, concedes the official, stokes skepticism about working with North Korea through the February 13 deal. In pursuing that deal and in advocating uncommon flexibility on the financial dispute, Rice took a political risk that is significant in the annals of the Bush administration; she has been charting a course that flies in the face of the earlier, prevailing hard-line instincts, and she has drawn the ire of prominent conservatives who have left the administration or still serve in it. The administration took years both to agree to meaningful bilateral discussions with a regime the president dubbed "evil" and to develop a negotiating framework that stands a chance of success. With North Korea having tested a nuclear bomb for the first time last October, it is clear that Rice and the White House see the February 13 agreement as the best remaining hope for curtailing North Korea's atomic breakout.
And yet with each passing week, it is clear that North Korea's delays put Rice and Hill in an increasingly uncomfortable position. Administration officials decline to state it so bluntly, but they acknowledge the reality that the deal will come under more intense questioning. "It was a very difficult decision on our part to support the unfreezing of these accounts," says the senior U.S. official. "The longer this goes on, the more people become concerned." One former high-ranking administration official who supports the Rice approach called the North Korean stalling "embarrassing."