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N. Korea, U.S. meet halfway

Times Staff Writers

With a formal announcement in the Rose Garden that he is easing sanctions against North Korea, President Bush on Thursday marked a milestone, albeit mostly symbolic, in the years-long struggle over the communist nation’s nuclear weapons programs.

Pyongyang, in an orchestrated exchange of concessions, provided details about its main nuclear efforts. In turn, U.S. officials will no longer brand North Korea a sponsor of terrorism and will free it from a few economic restrictions.

The most dramatic gesture of all was set for today in view of foreign TV crews, when North Korean officials were to demolish the cooling tower at the main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, the heart of the country’s decades-long march toward becoming a nuclear power.

But whether this moment actually marks the beginning of the end to leader Kim Jong Il’s nuclear threat depends on two unanswered questions: Is North Korea engaging in a second, more clandestine, effort to build nuclear weapons, and has it exported nuclear technology and know-how to other countries?

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The report that North Korea delivered does not divulge information about assembled nuclear weapons, about the bomb that Pyongyang tested in 2006, or about an alleged secret program to produce highly enriched uranium.

Such questions and issues are not likely to be resolved before Bush leaves the White House in January.

Despite the limited nature of Thursday’s deal, the Bush administration portrayed it as a significant blow to North Korea’s plutonium-based weapons program, which is believed to have produced the fissile material used in the bomb detonated by North Korea in a test almost two years ago.

Bush cautioned that the North Koreans still must agree to a “rigorous verification protocol” to ensure that they have fully disclosed the extent of their plutonium program so that all weapons-grade material can be accounted for and eventually removed.

But he pointed out that North Korea has already taken concrete steps toward disabling its Yongbyon facility, a process that has been monitored by U.S. and international inspectors since late last year.

“Our ultimate goal remains clear: a stable and peaceful Korean peninsula where people are free from oppression, free from hunger and disease, and free from nuclear weapons,” Bush said.

The decision to grant concessions, even symbolic ones, before a complete accounting of North Korea’s nuclear activities is a remarkable turnaround for Bush. He once vowed that complete and irreversible nuclear dismantlement was a precondition to any negotiations with North Korea, a charter member of his so-called “axis of evil.”

Bush’s actions lift Korean War-era sanctions under the Trading With the Enemy Act and notify Congress that he will remove North Korea’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism in 45 days. But they will have little practical effect, administration officials insisted, given the raft of economic sanctions currently in force against Pyongyang.

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Bush said the two moves would have “little impact on North Korea’s financial and diplomatic isolation” and that sanctions related to human rights violations, past nuclear testing and weapons proliferation would remain.

“The practical impact is going to be pretty slim,” agreed Ralph A. Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based research institute. “Does anybody think that American businesses are going to rush to do business with North Korea?”

By emphasizing the symbolic nature of the concessions, Bush appeared to be trying to deflect bitter opposition to the deal within his own party.

Nevertheless, he came under withering attack from fellow Republican conservatives, including John R. Bolton, who oversaw nuclear proliferation policy at the State Department during Bush’s first term. Bolton argued that the White House was acting precipitously to establish a diplomatic legacy in the waning days of the administration.

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Bolton said the accord gives North Korea new international legitimacy and opens the door for economic aid without definitively ending its nuclear arms program, a move that violates Bush’s doctrine of denying weapons of mass destruction to dangerous dictators.

“I think this is an embarrassment,” Bolton said in an interview. “I think this represents the definitive collapse of the Bush Doctrine and I’m sure they’re popping champagne corks in Pyongyang.”

The 60-page declaration was handed over to China, which chairs six-party North Korea denuclearization talks that with Pyongyang and Beijing, include South Korea, Japan, Russia and the U.S.

At the center of the dispute is what the report omitted. The declaration, to be delivered to the U.S. by the Chinese, is supposed to detail production of plutonium but does not provide details on nuclear weapons already assembled.

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Uranium enrichment has been the method favored by most aspiring nuclear powers because the process can be more easily hidden. North Korea is known to have received parts and plans for developing a uranium enrichment program from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the renegade Pakistani nuclear scientist.

U.S. officials have indicated that disclosures by North Korea made as part of the run-up to Thursday’s deal had provided evidence of possible uranium enrichment. The evidence reportedly included uranium particles found among the more than 18,000 pages of documents handed over by the North Koreans to U.S. experts last month.

As part of Thursday’s declaration, North Korea asserted that it is not engaged in any enrichment program, according to Stephen Hadley, the White House national security advisor. But Hadley said the U.S. remained unconvinced.

The proliferation issue has become more urgent with charges in April by the administration that North Korea assisted Syria with a nuclear facility that subsequently was destroyed by Israeli warplanes.

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But White House assurances appeared to hold little sway with GOP critics, who accused the Bush administration of ignoring the Syrian incident and North Korea’s nascent uranium enrichment program.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, said the decision to lift sanctions and remove North Korea’s terrorism designation amounted to rewarding a brutal dictatorship.

Although the move was largely welcomed by Democrats on Capitol Hill, Scott Snyder, a Korea expert at the Asia Foundation, said that even some who support negotiations with the North Koreans have grown increasingly concerned that Bush is giving away too much in a desperate effort to seal a deal before the end of his presidency.

“There is a risk we are giving away a lot of leverage for political reasons,” Snyder said. North Korea was placed on the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors after the 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner. Although Pyongyang hasn’t been implicated in a terrorist incident since, the designation has remained because of its nuclear program and Japan’s concerns about citizens abducted by North Korea.

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Removal from the terrorism list is a prerequisite for North Korea to apply for loans from the World Bank or other international institutions.

Bush administration officials said the next step in the six-party talks would be negotiating a verification process.

North Korea has promised to give the U.S. access to the reactor core and waste facilities at Yongbyon and allow inspectors to interview personnel involved in the nuclear program.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Spiegel reported from Washington and Demick from Beijing.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

A triple concern

The nuclear standoff with North Korea centers on three issues. Only one, its plutonium program, was covered by the North Korean declaration Thursday. Two other issues, a suspected uranium enrichment program and possible aid to Syria, were not resolved. Here is a breakdown:

The plutonium program

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The most visible of North Korea’s nuclear programs is based at the Yongbyon complex, where Pyongyang developed fissile material for a nuclear device it detonated in a 2006 test. Weapons in North Korea’s possession probably are based on plutonium technologies, which involve extracting material from reactor fuel rods. Experts believe North Korea has produced enough plutonium for several weapons.

The Yongbyon reactor was shuttered under a 1994 Clinton administration deal, but it was restarted in 2002 after the Bush administration accused North Korea of operating a second nuclear program. Thursday’s deal again halts plutonium production.

The uranium enrichment program

North Korea denies U.S. charges that it has a second nuclear weapons program based on highly enriched uranium, or HEU. Plutonium requires large, clearly visible nuclear plants, but HEU can be produced in secret using centrifuge technologies. U.S. officials believe North Korea got help from Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, but the program is not covered by Thursday’s agreement.

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A recent U.S. intelligence report says analysts have “at least moderate confidence” that North Korea’s HEU efforts are continuing.

Nuclear proliferation

The Bush administration recently disclosed that Israeli warplanes destroyed what is believed to have been a nuclear facility being built in Syria with North Korean help. Nonproliferation officials have worried that North Korea would attempt to sell sensitive nuclear technologies, because Pyongyang has used nearly every other weapon it has developed, such as missiles, to raise cash. But questions about North Korean help to Syria are not covered under North Korea’s declaration.

Source: Los Angeles Times

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Nuclear history

1986: North Korea starts operation of a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon after seven years of construction with Soviet help.

1994: Under an agreement with the U.S., North Korea shuts down the plutonium-based Yongbyon reactor in exchange for help in building two reactors for generating electricity.

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Jan. 29, 2002: President Bush labels North Korea, Iran and Iraq an “axis of evil.”

Oct. 16, 2002: U.S. says North Korea admitted having a uranium enrichment program.

Nov. 21, 2002: U.S.-led consortium says it is suspending work on reactors.

Jan. 10, 2003: North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

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Aug. 27-29, 2003: North Korea joins first round of six-nation nuclear talks in Beijing, which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.

Feb. 10, 2005: North Korea says it has nuclear weapons.

Oct. 9, 2006: North Korea says it conducted an underground nuclear test blast.

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Feb. 13, 2007: North Korea agrees to take steps to disarm, after Washington helps free $25 million in frozen funds.

July 14, 2007: North Korea shuts down Yongbyon reactor.

Oct. 3, 2007: North Korea is asked to provide a complete declaration of its nuclear programs and disable facilities at Yongbyon by Dec. 31.

Nov. 5, 2007: North starts disabling Yongbyon reactor under watch of U.S. experts.

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Dec. 31, 2007: North Korea misses deadline for declaring its nuclear programs.

April 24, 2008: The White House says North Korea assisted Syria’s secret nuclear program and that an alleged nuclear site destroyed by Israel was not for civilian use.

May 8, 2008: North Korea gives the U.S. more than 18,000 pages of records on the Yongbyon reactor.

June 26, 2008: The White House says it will lift some trade sanctions and move to take North Korea off terrorism blacklist after Pyongyang releases accounting of nuclear weapons activities.

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Source: Associated Press


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