WASHINGTON -- North Korea complained in late August that the United States had reneged on an agreement to remove Pyongyang from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. As a result, North Korea said, it planned to reassemble its primary nuclear weapons facility at Yongbyon.
The United States, however, says it's not required to revise its terror list until North Korea arranges a verification regime for disabling the nuclear facility. And in any case, it doesn't appear that North Korea is making good on its threat to reassemble Yongbyon, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.
"Based on what we know from the reports on the ground, you don't have an effort to reconstruct, reintegrate this equipment back into the Yongbyon facility," McCormack said on September 3, adding that the sensitive equipment had merely "been taken out of where it was being stored."
In other words, McCormack said, there was no concrete evidence that North Korea was doing anything it shouldn't do under the terms of the agreement.
Asked what North Korea should be doing, McCormack said it probably should put the equipment back in storage, but, more important, it should complete work on verifying to its fellow members of the six-party talks that it is disabling the Yongbyon facility.
Later on September 3, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed this lack of concern, saying only that the United States expects North Korea to adhere to the agreement. "We are expecting North Korea to live up to its obligations. And we will most certainly live up to our obligations," Rice said. "As any complex negotiating process will, it's had its ups and downs. But we believe that we should keep moving forward."
Nevertheless, the United States is sending Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief American nuclear negotiator, to Beijing on September 5 to meet with his South Korean counterpart. Representatives of Japan and China are expected to join them.
Cause For Concern
Whatever U.S. officials may say in public, however, they should be concerned about North Korea's behavior, according to John Wolfstahl. He served during the 1990s as the U.S. government's on-site monitor at Yongbyon and now is an analyst on weapons and proliferation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
"We should be concerned because the [negotiation] process appears to be breaking down, and that process is the only thing we have that might lead to the denuclearization of North Korea," Wolfstahl said. "But at the same time I have some sympathy for the idea that we shouldn't go scampering every time North Korea throws a temper tantrum. We are, I think, rightly trying to make sure that North Korea fulfills its obligation to have a verification system in place before we take them off of the sanctions list [of state sponsors of terrorism]. But at the same time I am concerned that the process appears to be breaking down and that the progress we've made could evaporate rather quickly."
Wolfstahl dismisses the idea being promoted by some analysts that its efforts to restart Yongbyon merely constitute a negotiating ploy to extract more concessions from its partners in the nuclear talks. After all, he says, North Korea actually could reinstate its nuclear program, something no one wants.
If anything, Wolfstahl says, Pyongyang may be testing the resolve of the other negotiators, particularly the United States, to determine whether Washington will firmly hold North Korea to its obligations. If that's the case, he says, the United States and the other negotiators should do just that, without pushing them so hard that the whole deal falls apart.
Wolfstahl also gives no credence to some observers who say any threat by North Korea to restart its nuclear weapons program would be empty. These observers argue that trade sanctions make it virtually impossible for Pyongyang to get all the parts needed to restart the aging Yongbyon facility.
According to Wolfstahl, that's just not so. "North Korea has proved itself very capable of relying on its own domestic capabilities to produce this nuclear complex," he said. "They didn't need a lot of outside imports to build this in the first place, and so I wouldn't rest comfortably thinking, 'Well, we have some export controls in place and therefore North Korea won't be able to get this up and running.' I think if North Korea wants to over the long run build more nuclear weapons, they are technically capable of doing so."
As a result, Wolfstahl says, the United States has to monitor North Korea very closely to make sure it doesn't renege on its commitments. Otherwise, he says, the situation could get much worse. " If things go badly, it's going to be over a period of months, but it's something that we shouldn't allow to get to that point," he said.
The Bush administration, like its predecessor under President Bill Clinton, has worked hard to ensure that there are no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. It was with great fanfare that it announced an agreement in June that Pyongyang would dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear facility. It even destroyed the reactor's cooling tower in front of the international media.
The current snag in the process of denuclearizing North Korea comes just as Rice is to visit Libya on September 5 -- the first high-ranking U.S. official to make the trip in 51 years. After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi declared that he was renouncing terrorism and giving up his weapons programs.
Some analysts say the Bush administration wants to highlight a rare success in persuading at least one weapons proliferator to give up those ambitions as the administration nears the end of its eight years in office in January. Was Washington so unsure of the success of the North Korean process that it can now point to only Libya as a success?
Wolfstahl says that may be so. Of all the problems that Bush inherited when he took office, and of all those that arose since then, he says, all have become worse, including North Korea's nuclear program. The sole exception, he says, seems to be Libya.