N. Korea agreement is step back, yet forward

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The new international nuclear agreement with North Korea marks a fundamental change in direction for the Bush administration after years of frustration in its hard-line campaign to force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program without immediate rewards.

In his first term, President Bush rejected Clinton administration attempts to win North Korean cooperation with aid. He declared that only after "complete, verified, irreversible dismantlement" of its nuclear program could the regime receive U.S. help.


But as the White House held fast to that approach, Kim Jong Il's government built an estimated eight to 10 bombs, tried out missile launches, conducted a nuclear test and seemed poised to continue the buildup with impunity.

The tentative agreement reached yesterday would bring Pyongyang back to the bargaining table, with pledges to freeze its primary nuclear reactor and to discuss dismantling its entire nuclear infrastructure. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it a "breakthrough."


But the deal also gives the regime energy assistance and other aid up front and commits the U.S. to the kind of direct talks with the North Koreans that the White House had long ruled out.

The deal provoked outrage from conservative allies of the administration, including former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, who branded it a charade and said it was a "hollow agreement" that "contradicts fundamental premises of the president's policy."

At the same time, some former Clinton administration officials hailed it as a step in the right direction.

But many observers acknowledged that the White House had few other choices.

"They recognized that they had to adopt a practical approach," said Gary Samore, a National Security Council official during the Clinton administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. "They had to do something to stabilize the situation, or they would face a full-blown crisis on the Korean peninsula."

The deal reached yesterday is only a first step toward a negotiated end to North Korea's nuclear program, U.S. officials acknowledge. It calls for the regime to shut down and seal its primary nuclear facilities, at Yongbyon, and to allow the return of U.N. nuclear inspectors to verify the process. Then the North Koreans begin a complex series of talks with the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

If North Korea discloses all of its nuclear programs and disables all facilities, it will be entitled to aid worth 950,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, or most of its annual consumption. The process also promises North Korea a chance to reach two other goals: normal relations with the United States and removal from the American list of government sponsors of terrorism.

Yet, U.S. officials acknowledge that there are any number of issues that could derail a process that has faltered again and again since 1993. "This is the first quarter, not the fourth," Rice said.


Critics of the administration were quick to charge that the deal had only gotten the White House back to where it was at the start of Bush's first term.

"This deal takes us back to the future," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The good news is that it freezes in place North Korea's nuclear program.

"The bad news is that North Korea's program is much more dangerous to us now than it was in 2002, when President Bush rejected virtually the same deal he is now embracing."

From a conservative perspective, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation said the deal "sends a dangerously accommodating signal not only to North Korea but also to Iran and any other aspiring nuclear weapons state."

Rice, defending the deal, said the United States is entering these talks in a much better position than it had during the days of the so-called "Agreed Framework" negotiations initiated in 1994 by the Clinton administration. Bush abandoned those talks in November 2002, amid signs that Pyongyang was carrying on a secret uranium-based bomb program.

Rice said the difference is that the United States now has greater leverage over North Korea because of the influence of the four countries that are joining it at the negotiating table. China, the North's primary energy source and chief trading partner, has brought pressure on Pyongyang since its nuclear test in October, U.S. officials say.


Rice also asserted that the up-front aid that Pyongyang receives for coming back to the table is "modest" - only a fraction of the 2 million tons of heavy fuel oil it was demanding.

Some experts who analyzed the deal agreed.

"Fifty-thousand tons is a small amount," said L. Gordon Flake, a longtime Korea watcher at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. "It's basically a face-saving gesture for the North Koreans."

Although the deal illustrates how far the administration has come, there have been signs for some time that the United States was open to a more flexible approach.

One was in early 2005, when Rice named Christopher Hill, a veteran dealmaker who helped negotiate the Bosnia peace settlement, to be assistant secretary of state for East Asia, making him the State Department's top negotiator on North Korea.

Hill has worked with Rice and Bush on Korea, even as hard-liners, including Bolton and Robert G. Joseph, the State Department's top proliferation official, were leaving the administration.


Last month, Hill met with North Korean officials in Berlin and began talking of a new "bilateral" approach, despite the administration's formal insistence that its negotiations must be through meetings of all six countries involved in the discussions.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.