North Korea May Miss Deadline on Nuclear Pledge

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Friday, December 07, 2007

North Korea May Miss Deadline on Nuclear Pledge

( - North Korea may not meet a year-end deadline to declare all of its nuclear programs, as it promised to do in an agreement earlier this year, South Korea's foreign minister has warned.

"We may need to be a little more flexible," Song Min-soon told a meeting of business leaders in Seoul Thursday, saying that the situation had reached "a critical juncture."

Speaking in Beijing later in the day after visiting North Korea, the U.S. envoy to the "six-party" nuclear talks, Christopher Hill, also suggested that Pyongyang may miss the deadline.

Indicating that there were differences between the U.S. and North Korea over what should be included in the declaration, he said, "We want them to put together a good declaration, and that may take some time."

Under the agreement negotiated with its six-party partners -- the U.S., Japan, South Korea, China and Russia -- North Korea said in October it would declare all nuclear programs and "disable" three specified facilities in exchange for economic and diplomatic concessions.

Under U.S. supervision, the process of disabling a reactor and associated facilities at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, is underway, and Hill -- who inspected the site this week -- said the disabling was on target for the Dec. 31 deadline.

But the U.S. and others believe North Korea's nuclear activities went beyond the plutonium-based program at Yongbyon, and they want a full accounting of any and all past or present nuclear activity.

"We don't want to see a declaration in which everyone can immediately see what's missing," Hill said in Beijing earlier this week. "We want to make sure this declaration is as complete and correct as possible."

Of key interest -- as it has been for the past five years -- is the alleged existence of a covert uranium-based program. The standoff erupted in October 2002, when State Department officials said they confronted North Korea with evidence that Pyongyang was cheating on a 1994 agreement negotiated with the Clinton administration, under which Kim Jong-il had agreed to freeze nuclear activity in return for aid.

At that 2002 meeting, the State Department says, the North Koreans admitted to enriching uranium. North Korea has consistently denied having made such an admission.

In 2005, then CIA director Porter Goss told U.S. lawmakers that the CIA believed North Korea continued to pursue the capability to enrich uranium, drawing on the help it received from the nuclear black-market network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan before it was shut down in 2004.

Highly enriched uranium is a key ingredient of an atomic weapon.

A full declaration of all nuclear activity is also important to the U.S. because of concerns that North Korea may have sold or given nuclear know-how to other states or groups. The proliferation worries deepened when Israel carried out an air strike against a site in Syria last September, prompting speculation that it had targeted a joint Syrian-North Korean nuclear or missile project.

The conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo said in an editorial Friday the denuclearization process had reached a critical point.

"Now the time has come for North Korea to declare its nuclear materials, which would show its true willingness to scrap its nuclear ambitions, the Stalinist country is suddenly having second thoughts," it said.

"If it does not fully declare everything, all the efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis will have been in vain."

The White House confirmed Thursday that President Bush had sent a personal letter to Kim, urging the reclusive dictator to declare all his country's nuclear programs.

The letter was handed to the North Koreans by Hill during his visit earlier this week.

The White House said Bush had also sent letters to the other countries involved in the six-party talks.

See Earlier Story:
North Korea Nuclear Agreement Awaits 'Moment of Truth' (Oct. 4, 2007)

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