North Korea agrees to disable nuclear plants

Pact sets schedule for disclosure in exchange for aid

October 04, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- North Korea has agreed to disable all of its nuclear facilities by the end of the year, in a move that the Bush administration hailed as a diplomatic victory that could serve as a model for how to deal with Iran, which has defied U.S. efforts to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

The North Korea agreement, announced in Beijing yesterday, sets out the first specific timetable for Pyongyang to disclose all its nuclear programs and disable all facilities in return for 950,000 metric tons of fuel oil or its equivalent in economic aid.

The accord is the second stage of a six-nation pact reached in February that critics say rewards North Korea for its test of a nuclear device last October. The agreement has not yet resolved the contentious question of when North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons.

The agreement calls on the United States to "begin the process of removing" Pyongyang from a U.S. terrorism list "in parallel" with North Korea's actions. Conservative critics said the United States should not take North Korea off the terrorism list until it gives up all its nuclear weapons and argued that the pact was far too conciliatory toward a nuclear power with alleged ties to international terrorism.

But the Bush administration has been eager to show diplomatic progress, and President Bush suggested that the deal should serve as an example to Iran, which has refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program. During a Town Hall meeting yesterday in Lancaster, Pa., Bush told a questioner that he might hold direct talks with Iran if it first froze enrichment of uranium.

"If your question is, `Will you ever sit down with them?' we've proven we would with North Korea, and the answer is: `Yeah, just so long as we can achieve something, so long as we are able to get our objective,'" Bush said.

John R. Bolton, the administration's former ambassador to the United Nations, said that the White House violated the original purpose of the diplomatic talks by agreeing to negotiate side agreements with North Korea about taking Pyongyang off both the terrorism list and another list of "enemy" nations forbidden from trading with the United States.

"If they come off either of both lists, without any final verification of their performance on the nuclear issue, I think the president will have embarrassed his administration in history," Bolton said.

Critics of the White House, including some Democrats, note that the February accord bears a strong resemblance to the 1994 agreement between North Korea and the Clinton administration, which Bush administration officials had denounced as a giveaway and which collapsed in 2002.

Conservatives are also angry that the United States proceeded with the agreement despite a recent Israeli airstrike in Syria that Israeli officials have said was directed at nuclear material supplied by North Korea. During meetings this past weekend, Christopher R. Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator, told North Korea that one of the things it must disclose were details of whatever nuclear material it had been supplying to Syria, two senior Bush administration officials said.

Both officials, who asked that their names not be used because they were not authorized to speak on the issue, said that North Korean officials denied giving Syria any assistance.

"We did not achieve clarity on this issue, but that does not mean we do not intend to keep trying," one of the officials said. "We aren't operating on faith."

On Monday, President Bashar Assad of Syria acknowledged for the first time that the Israeli incursion had been an attack but said that the target had been an empty warehouse. "They bombed a building, a construction. It's related to the military but it's not used," Assad told the BBC.

Under the agreement reached in February, North Korea has shut down its Yongbyon nuclear plant, which, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, has produced enough plutonium for as many as a half dozen bombs.

This week's agreement calls on North Korea to disable Yongbyon by the end of the year. Administration officials said they hoped that by disabling the facility, they would avoid a repeat of 2002, when North Korea shut down Yongbyon and then restarted the facility after talks broke down.

"They were able to get the reactor up and running in two months," a State Department official said. "By focusing on disablement, the hope is that the next interim measure is to do things to it so it can't readily be turned back on."

Yesterday's agreement is part of a larger pact between North Korea, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the United States - the so-called "six parties" that have been wrangling to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.

Hill said that the pact also called for the United States to give North Korea assistance with its energy sector. State Department officials said that the first $25 million, equivalent to 50,000 tons of fuel aid, would be making its way to North Korea shortly.

Hill said North Korea did not have enough room in its ports or oil depots to put up all of the fuel oil it had been promised, which was part of the reason why the countries would also give the North equivalent economic aid to help to build and improve energy plants and storage depots.

The official joint statement is carefully worded on how or when North Korea will be taken off the terrorism list, reflecting the political sensitivity, particularly in the United States, of the matter.

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