WASHINGTON – With North Korea almost a month overdue on its obligation to provide a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs and materiel, the Bush administration — under increasing pressure from American conservatives to take a harder line with Pyongyang, or abandon the talks altogether — is now considering accepting a declaration that would be less than complete, carving out the two most contentious issues for later resolution, sources told FOX News.
The foreign diplomatic sources, representing countries involved in the six-party nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea — a group of nations that includes the U.S., Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea — told FOX News that the U.S. envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has floated the idea of allowing the North Koreans to exclude from their declaration both their highly enriched uranium (HEU) program and their nuclear collaboration with Syria, with the understanding that these issues would be revisited later.
However, Hill said the idea he is considering accepting a less-than-complete declaration from Pyongyang is "completely inaccurate." Such an option, Hill told FOX News in an e-mail message, "has never been under consideration."
The sources said such a less-than-complete declaration would mirror the very proposal made by the North Koreans in November, at which U.S. negotiators scoffed, dismissing the incomplete submission as mere "research" instead of a real declaration. But the North Koreans have since "put their foot down," said an American analyst familiar with the Bush administration's internal deliberations, and made clear their intention to withhold the declaration unless and until the U.S. capitulates swiftly on one of North Korea's key demands: that the country be removed, or "de-listed," from the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism, where North Korea has had a spot since 1988. As another sign of Pyongyang's hardening position, analysts point to its recent and abrupt cancellation of a planned working group meeting between North and South Korean officials on the establishment of a rail line between the two Koreas.
In private talks, FOX News has learned, the North Koreans have also claimed that none of the three written agreements negotiated in the six-party process — neither the landmark September 19, 2005 agreement nor the implementation accords of February 13 and October 3, 2007 — requires the North to declare any activities with regard to proliferation with countries like Syria. The text of the September 19 agreement committed the North only to "returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards," nuclear accords from which the North has formally withdrawn but which, if observed, would bar the North from covertly exporting nuclear technology. Likewise, in the text of the October 3 implementation accord, North Korea committed not to "transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how beyond its borders." However, by that point, the suspected nuclear facility in Syria that was allegedly built with North Korean assistance had already been targeted by the Israeli Air Force and apparently destroyed.
"This is a matter of interpretation," said one foreign diplomat. But American conservatives, predictably, do not see it this way, and have forecast a "wild" eruption on Capitol Hill if North Korea is taken off the terrorism list despite having covertly exported nuclear technology to Syria, another country on the State Department's terror list. These critics of Assistant Secretary Hill's approach — which sources say has the full backing of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — cite the post-9/11 Bush Doctrine, which was perhaps most succinctly articulated by President Bush on September 25, 2001, during a joint appearance at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi: "[I]f you harbor a terrorist, if you aid a terrorist, if you hide terrorists, you're just as guilty as the terrorists." Thus North Korea cannot have earned the right to be de-listed, these critics argue, if it has "aided" a fellow terror-sponsoring state like Syria, let alone by providing it with nuclear technology.
A foreign diplomat suggested that the idea of carving out the HEU program and Syrian issue for later resolution will not fly because of the strong opposition it will encounter among American conservatives. "These two issues got too much publicity here," the diplomat said.
As recently as January 7, when he was visiting Tokyo, Assistant Secretary Hill appeared utterly unwilling to accept an incomplete declaration from North Korea, saying "complete means complete… We can't go with something that's 80 percent or 90 percent. We really need to go with something that's complete." The Japanese, whose top priority in the six-party Talks has been to determine the status of roughly two-dozen Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea over the past two decades, typically take the hardest line with Pyongyang, and are keen to see the North remain on the U.S. terror list until the abductions issue is fully resolved.
Yet on the same trip, just three days later, during a stop in Beijing, China — the North's chief patron and ally in the talks — Hill hinted at a sudden willingness to accept an incomplete declaration, if only to restore momentum to the stalemated six-party process. Because the North Koreans' original submission contained "some glaring omissions," Hill told reporters on January 10, the U.S. considered whether to "invite them to submit an incorrect and incomplete declaration and then start haggling over that. But instead we chose to continue the discussion with the idea that when they do produce a declaration, it ought to be pretty close to being final."
Besides the expected backlash from domestic conservatives within the Bush administration and on Capitol Hill, secretaries Rice and Hill face three major problems in their efforts to move beyond the impasse over the North Korean declaration. First, according to one foreign diplomat, is that the North "does not trust the U.S. promises," particularly on the de-listing issue.
Second is the clock: A number of sources contacted by FOX News suggested North Korea is determined to wait out the end of the Bush administration, in the hope, as one American analyst put it, that "another Madeleine Albright will come to Pyongyang and start toasting champagne glasses" with the regime of Kim Jong Il. This notion was most forcefully expressed in recent days by Jay Lefkowitz, the State Department human rights envoy who told the American Enterprise Institute on January 17 that North Korea is "not serious about disarming in a timely manner" — remarks that earned swift and unusually severe repudiation from State Department spokesmen and Secretary Rice herself.
A third problem, and perhaps the most serious, is that Washington's allies in the six-party process have grown openly skeptical about the reliability of American intelligence on the North's HEU program and its collaboration with Syria and other rogue states. This skepticism is borne of the celebrated intelligence failure with regard to Iraq's WMD programs, and, too, the seeming about-face, on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, contained in the National Intelligence Estimate released December 2. "If the U.S. shared its information regarding the North Korean nuclear programs with the other parties [in the six-party process]," said one foreign diplomat, "and all agree it is really strong evidence, then it would be much easier to get the North to confess."
This diplomat also pointed to the public acknowledgment by senior Bush administration officials in early 2007 that their confidence in the U.S. intelligence data showing that North Korea was pursuing an HEU program had been downgraded from "high" to "at least moderate."
James Rosen joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 1999 and is the network’s chief Washington correspondent.