The United States and North Korea may have found a way to break their deadlock over the long overdue North Korean declaration of its nuclear activities, people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
US Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill on Thursday briefed lawmakers on a plan under which Washington would put forward its concerns about North Korea's suspected uranium enrichment program and nuclear proliferation.
According to people familiar with the briefing, North Korea would then "acknowledge the US concerns."
This formula could provide a face-saving way for Pyongyang to produce the declaration of its atomic programs that was due by December 31, although skeptics questioned whether the United States should accept what it would yield as the "complete and correct" accounting North Korea has promised.
North Korea's failure to produce the declaration has bogged down a 2005 multilateral deal under which the poor, communist state committed to abandon all nuclear weapons and programs.
The so-called six-party agreement was hammered out among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
The declaration has been held up partly because of Pyongyang's reluctance to discuss any transfer of nuclear technology to other countries, notably Syria, as well as to account for its suspected pursuit of uranium enrichment.
Uranium enrichment could provide North Korea with a second way to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons in addition to its plutonium-based program, which it used to test an atomic device in October 2006.
Several people familiar with Hill's briefing said he gave US lawmakers the impression he hoped to bring about such a declaration within weeks. According to these people, the declaration would have three parts:
– North Korea's disclosure of its plutonium stockpile, which Pyongyang has estimated at 66 pounds (30 kg), as well as records that would allow the United states to verify this figure;
– a US "bill of particulars" laying out US concerns about North Korea's suspected uranium enrichment program as well as its suspected nuclear proliferation activities;
– North Korea's acknowledgment of the US concerns.
One person said North Korea would either have to disprove the US suspicions – and provide evidence to back this up – or to acknowledge that they were well-founded.
But others said North Korea was not expected to challenge the US list of its suspected activities.
"There is no hint whatsoever that they will attempt to disprove," said one person familiar with the briefing. "There is already a tacit understanding that the bill of particulars to be presented by the United States will not be contested by the DPRK and/or will be acknowledged by them as accurate."
He referred to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The people familiar with Hill's briefing said Pyongyang's declaration – to be given to China as host of the six-party talks – would occur at roughly the same time as the United States would initiate steps to drop Pyongyang from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism and to lift other sanctions related to the US Trading with the Enemy Act.
Charles "Jack" Pritchard, a former US negotiator with North Korea who is president of the Korea Economic Institute, questioned whether the US accusations, and the North Korean acknowledgment, would amount to a full accounting.
"The concern I have ... is a North Korean acknowledgment of US concerns does not appear to translate into a North Korean complete and correct declaration of their past activities," he said.
"It doesn't, on the surface, satisfy the requirement of completeness. It is the United States that is presenting the information; it is not North Korea presenting the information," he added. "The North Koreans may simply be acknowledging what limited amount of information the United States knows but failing to (provide) the complete picture."
But a person familiar with the briefing argued that despite the ambiguity of such an agreement, it was worthwhile if it allowed the two sides to proceed to the final phase of the six-party deal – getting North Korea to hand over all of its plutonium and to dismantle its core nuclear facilities.
"We should keep our eye on the ball," he said. "The objective here is to eliminate their ability to produce fissile material and to extract from North Korea any fissile material that they have produced." (Reuters)
US and N Korea to break nuclear deadlock