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Archive for Sunday, June 29, 2008

North Korea nuclear papers far from complete

June 29, 2008

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— The Bush administration breathed easier when the prickly and unpredictable North Korean government stuck to its script and handed over long-delayed nuclear paperwork as planned.

But if the documentation provided Thursday were a college term paper, the grade would be "incomplete."

The documents do not spell out the number of plutonium bombs in storage or make promises about what happens to them. That could come in the next phase of the often-troubled talks with North Korea, when the reclusive communist country is supposed to destroy its weapons and facilities.

Missing are details about an alleged parallel program to seek weapons fueled by enriched uranium. Also missing is a complete account of North Korea's role in helping Syria develop what the U.S. alleges was a nuclear facility. The site was destroyed by Israel last year.

Those activities are addressed in a separate two-page document turned over to the U.S. in April, a senior U.S. official told The Associated Press. That previously secret document, known as a "confidential minute," probably will be attached to the longer declaration.

In the attachment, the U.S. outlines its concerns about uranium enrichment and the nuclear cooperation with Syria. North Korea acknowledges those concerns and says it will cooperate to work out differences to "mutual satisfaction," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the agreement before the documents were released Thursday.

In fact, the papers awaited by the world for months leave unanswered the biggest questions about North Korea's nuclear work and will tell investigators little they didn't already know.

The chief unanswered question almost surely will outlast the Bush administration: Is North Korea serious about giving up nuclear weapons that have proved a valuable bargaining chip?

"How this process will work out in the end and whether they will give up their nuclear weapons, frankly, I think nobody knows the answer right now," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the Pentagon.

The document and the underlying deal it solidifies provide no assurance that the North Korea, which cheated on an earlier agreement with the U.S., will not do so again.

The roughly 60-page document is less precise than what the U.S. once demanded, opening the administration to conservatives' charge that President Bush wanted a deal so badly that he settled for a bad one.

For the administration, the main value of the handover is that it happened at all. It is a small but important marker that Bush did not misplace his newfound confidence in a country he once branded as part of an "axis of evil."

Bush tried to inoculate himself against criticism from the right with a Rose Garden announcement that rapped North Korea even as he delivered on a promise of economic and political goodies in return for the nuclear accounting.

"The United States has no illusions about the regime in Pyongyang," Bush said, and will only trust North Korea to the extent it shows it can be trusted.

Washington says it will retaliate if North Korea reneges on a promise to eventually get rid of all its weapons, and that even North Korea's sometime protectors in Asia will do the same.

The carefully orchestrated handover is of little practical consequence to North Korea. It gains no immediate benefit from the lifting of some trade penalties or from Bush's promise to remove the country from the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism.

Those are symbolic political victories for impoverished and isolated North Korea, however, and ruler Kim Jong Il is expected to make the most of them. He offered a symbolic gesture of his own - the televised destruction of the distinctive conical cooling tower at the shuttered Yongbyon plutonium complex.

The papers themselves document the work of Yongbyon, an aging facility some analysts think was nearly obsolete anyway.

Still, the paperwork emerged as a linchpin for the nuclear disarmament deal the North has worked out over three years with the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. During that time, the talks stopped and started several times, and North Korea exploded a nuclear device in an underground test.

North Korea missed an end-of-2007 deadline to turn over the inventory, and complained that the United States was moving the goal posts. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill worked out a painstaking compromise that culminated in Thursday's handover.

Had the clock run much longer, Bush would have had little chance of getting the more significant prize - the destruction of actual bombs - before he leaves office. As it is, Hill has said it will be difficult to complete the deal by the end of this year.

The declaration details the amount of plutonium the North produced, down to the gram. A senior U.S. official says North Korea claims to have produced an amount of plutonium in the low 40-kilogram range (about 88 pounds), including estimates of waste.

That is enough to construct at least a half-dozen nuclear bombs and is in line with U.S. intelligence estimates.

North Korea stopped making plutonium and has partly disabled its nuclear facilities so they cannot be quickly restarted. But it has its stockpile of radioactive material for now.

"I'm pleased with the progress," Bush said. "I'm under no illusions that this is the first step; this isn't the end of the process, this is the beginning."

- Anne Gearan covers diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.

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