U.S. to Offer North Korea Incentives in Nuclear Talks
WASHINGTON, June 22 - President Bush has authorized a team of American negotiators to offer North Korea, in talks in Beijing on Thursday, a new but highly conditional set of incentives to give up its nuclear weapons programs the way Libya did late last year, according to senior administration officials.
The proposal would be the first significant, detailed overture to North Korea since Mr. Bush took office three years ago.
Under the plan, outlined by American officials on Tuesday evening, in response to pressure from China and American allies in Asia, the aid would begin flowing immediately after a commitment by Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, to dismantle his plutonium and uranium weapons programs. In return, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea would immediately begin sending tens of thousands of tons of heavy fuel oil every month, and Washington would offer a "provisional'' guarantee not to invade the country or seek to topple Mr. Kim's government.
It would also begin direct talks about lifting a broad array of American economic sanctions that have been in place against North Korea for more than half a century, and providing longer-term energy aid and retraining of nuclear scientists.
But Mr. Kim would have only three months, what the officials call a "preparatory period of dismantlement,'' to seal and shut the North Korean nuclear facilities, similar to what Libya committed to late last year. After that, Mr. Bush's aides say, the continuation of the oil and the talks would depend on North Korea giving international inspectors access to suspected nuclear sites, and meeting a series of deadlines for disclosing the full nature of its facilities, disabling and dismantling then, and then shipping them out of the country, as Libya did.
"Our allies have been telling us that they think Kim Jong Il is ready for a test of his intentions,'' one of Mr. Bush's most senior national security aides said in a interview on Tuesday night. "So we are prepared to offer them a strategic choice.'' Another senior aide said, "They may say no - and in that case they will have failed the test.''
Administration officials said they expected the North Koreans to take any offers back to Pyonyang, and that it could be weeks or longer before an answer.
Mr. Bush has been under rising criticism - from South Korea, China, Russia and most recently his presumptive Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts - for failing to make a serious offer to the North Koreans since coming into office. While intelligence agencies are still arguing with each other about what progress North Korea's two nuclear programs have made in the past few years, a consensus is developing that, in the past year, the country has probably fabricated enough plutonium fuel to make six or seven new nuclear weapons, and there is still unconfirmed evidence, gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that the North may have shipped raw uranium to Libya for its bomb project.
By setting a three-month grace period, Mr. Bush's aides say they are trying to correct what they view as major flaws in the 1994 nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea that President Bill Clinton signed, but which has been abandoned. Under that agreement, North Korea never had to ship its plutonium fuel out of the country, and it continued to receive fuel oil and other aid while, intelligence officials assert, it started a second, secret program to build bombs out of uranium fuel, with help from a clandestine network built by Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear chief.
Officials from several Asian allies, who began to hear about the plan on Tuesday in Beijing, said they welcomed it - but they questioned whether it would be enough to induce Mr. Kim to give up the one program that gives his desperate country leverage over its far more powerful neighbors. "They probably would reject even a better offer, figuring that after the election they have a chance of dealing with someone other than George Bush,'' said one senior Asian official who has been urging the White House to make an offer to the North. "And, of course, they can use the extra time to work on making more bomb fuel, if they haven't finished that process already.''
Asked Tuesday night why the North Koreans should respond before they see whether Mr. Bush has been re-elected, or whether they will be dealing with a Democrat who has promised one-on-one talks, one of Mr. Bush's aides said, "Maybe they won't.'' But if they fail to agree, he said, "they will have to weigh the effect on the Japanese, the South Koreans, the Russians and the Chinese,'' all of whom are potential sources of energy, food and investment.
Under the offer, those four countries - but not the United States - would provide the North with heavy fuel oil roughly equivalent to the 45,000 tons the United States was sending to the country under the 1994 agreement. The United States halted those shipments 18 months ago when it confronted North Korea with evidence about the uranium program.
Elements of the new proposal have been floated before - including a written security guarantee - but never with this specificity, with a timetable or promise of immediate aid. But several hawks in the administration are opposed to making what one senior State Department official called "a much more expansive offer,'' and both American and Asian officials fear that North Korea could rejected it as insufficient.
Several outside experts said they believed that the North Koreans now think they have the upper hand in the negotiations, partly because South Korea has agreed to direct talks on military issues and because China, which is organizing the negotiations in Beijing, has provided the North with millions of dollars in fuel and other goods to keep talking.
"The North Koreans don't feel under any pressure to make concessions right now because they feel the United States is not in a position to take military action, and not in a position to walk away,'' said Gary Samore, who ran the nonproliferation office of the National Security Council under Mr. Clinton and is now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "They are in a strange position; they are being paid by the Chinese to talk.''
In public, Mr. Bush talks about confronting North Korea with a unified view from the five nations on the other side of the table: the United States, South Korea, Russia, China and Japan. But it was not until the past few days - with signs that the unity of that group might be cracking - that he agreed to put what one administration official called "meat on the bones'' of its offer.
South Korea, impatient with Mr. Bush, has made its own series of overtures to North Korea. Japan has agreed to compensate North Korea for releasing the children of Japanese who were kidnapped years ago. China has publicly questioned the American evidence that the North has a separate uranium program, though administration officials say that, in private, the Chinese concede they, too, believe the North is taking two paths to building bombs, and has been trying to simplify the talks to get Washington to return to a freeze of the nuclear program.
Mr. Bush has rejected that approach, saying a freeze would not solve the problem, his aides say. He is demanding a Libya-like dismantlement, and will be speaking in the next few days to leaders of the countries involved in the negations, one of his most senior aides said, "to urge them to urge the North'' to take the deal.
Like Iraq, North Korea has been a subject of constant division and argument within the Bush administration, almost since the day the president took office. Many in the State Department urged the White House to build on talks Mr. Clinton was pursuing in 2000, including discussions of removing North Korea from the list of states that sponsor terrorism. Hawks in the administration - from the vice president's office to the Pentagon - opposed any talks at all, saying there was no reason to believe that the North Koreans would abide by a new agreement after violating the 1994 accord. (North Korea charged that Congress never fulfilled its commitments to provide all the oil promised under that agreement.)
Mr. Bush, while refusing direct talks with North Korea, began six-party talks to put pressure on the North from its closest neighbors, but so far the sessions have made no concrete progress. Frustrated, the allies have for months been urging Mr. Bush to make what one Chinese diplomat called "a serious offer, not a vague statement that if the North Koreans disarm, something good might happen.''
Mr. Bush's aides say they are now doing that - though Mr. Kerry argued in an interview last month that if the White House had seriously engaged with North Korea early in Mr. Bush's presidency, the North might not have converted its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into bomb fuel. White House officials have said that that position is naïve, and that North Korea was intent on cheating on its old agreement.
With the new offer, Mr. Bush has retreated on one major point: after insisting a year ago that the allies cut off oil to North Korea, he has now agreed to allow a resumption of oil shipments - though not American oil - before the country actually dismantles anything. But because the shipments would last only for three months if the North reneged on any part of its disarmament pledge, Mr. Bush's aides argue that there would be little at risk.
It may not get that far. The kind of disclosure Mr. Bush is pressing North Korea to make would involve an admission that the secret uranium program exists - something the Americans say the North admitted to in October 2002, but have since denied. It would require revealing, then opening, secret nuclear sites. And it would require, in the end, trusting that the benefits would continue to flow even after all the country's nuclear materials have been shipped out of the country.