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N. Korea, U.S. meet halfway

June 27, 2008|Peter Spiegel and Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — 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?

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.

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.

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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