WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested Friday that the United States is backing off on a demand that has hung up nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea.
The North missed a December 31 deadline to produce a detailed inventory of its nuclear programs and describe its past actions to spread nuclear activity. Negotiations have been stalled since then in a dispute about how specific, and how public, those lists had to be.
Now the Bush administration has decided that the exact contents of the North Korean declaration are less important than an assurance that the U.S. and other nations can check up on the North to make sure it isn't resuming any nuclear activities.
U.S. officials say the net result is the same, but the North can split its inventory into two parts — one specific and one more vague. That makes it more palatable to the North, whose representatives apparently agreed to the plan during recent meetings with a U.S. diplomat.
"Any document that we get, any declaration that we get, has to be verified, and has to be verifiable," Rice told reporters. "We have to make certain that we have the means to assess what the North Koreans tell us, and we have to have means to verify what the North Koreans tell us."
Asked about a possible agreement to break the impasse, Rice didn't repeat her usual phrase that the North must come up with a complete and accurate list. She said the North must provide the information, but her emphasis is on what would happen next — verifying that the North is telling the truth.
She said that verification could take some time to do, but that after the U.S. is satisfied, it would be ready to move ahead on promises it made the North to drop sanctions.
Asked about whether the U.S. and its negotiating partners are close to a deal with North Korea, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said "we are not there yet."
"North Korea, we believe, should come forward with a full declaration," he said.
State Department officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations are still going on, said that once satisfied, the U.S. would take what would be a dramatic step in its troubled relations with the communist North. Within weeks, the administration could begin the process of removing North Korea from the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism, and lifting penalties under the Trading With The Enemy Act.