WASHINGTON — Two days ago, during an off-the-record session with a group of foreign policy experts,
Vice President Dick Cheney got a question he did not want to answer. “Mr. Vice President,” asked one of them,
“I understand that on Wednesday or Thursday, we are going to de-list North Korea from the terrorism blacklist. Could you please set the context for this decision?”
Mr. Cheney froze, according to four participants at the Old Executive Office Building meeting. For more than 30 minutes he had been taking and answering questions, without missing a beat. But now, for several long seconds, he stared, unsmilingly, at his questioner, Steven Clemons of the New America Foundation, a public policy institution. Finally, he spoke:
“I’m not going to be the one to announce this decision,” the other participants recalled Mr. Cheney saying, pointing at himself. “You need to address your interest in this to the State Department.” He then declared that he was done taking questions, and left the room.
In the internal Bush administration war between the State Department and Mr. Cheney’s office over North Korea, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top North Korea envoy, Christopher R. Hill, won a major battle against the Cheney camp when President Bush announced Thursday that he was taking the country he once described as part of the “axis of evil” off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
North Korea also said that it would blow up the cooling tower of its nuclear plant at Yongbyon on Friday, and it has invited news organizations to watch the event. North Korea probably has the fuel for several nuclear devices, according to United States intelligence estimates, but after the ambiguous result of its one test detonation, its nuclear status remains murky.
North Korea declared that it had slightly more plutonium than it had previously admitted. But the declaration falls short of the full accounting that the administration had sought, since it omits any information about North Korea’s suspected efforts to enrich uranium, or the extent of any of the North’s sharing of technology around the world.
Thursday’s announcement intensified a pitched battle in Washington, where Democrats and many foreign policy experts said the administration had dithered too long before reaching this deal, allowing North Korea to acquire enough plutonium to make several nuclear weapons. From the other side of the fence, conservative hard-liners complained that the United States gave away too much for too little, and should have adopted a more absolutist approach with the secretive North Korean government.
North Korean officials said the demolition would cost $5 million, and the United States offered $2.5 million — an amount that conservative hard-liners in Washington said was too much, according to several administration officials involved in the talks.
“The forthcoming demolition of a nuclear cooling tower this weekend is little more than the destruction of an empty shell,” Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Florida, complained in a statement.
“This is a sad, sad day,” said John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations and a leading critic of the new American negotiating stance. “I think Bush believes what Condi is telling him, that they’re going to persuade the North to give up nuclear weapons, and I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think we’ve been taken to the cleaners.”
The 60-page declaration from North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated and impoverished nations, described in previously undisclosed detail its abilities in nuclear power and nuclear weapons, meeting a major demand of the United States and other countries that consider the North a dangerous source of instability.
“This can be a moment of opportunity for North Korea,” Mr. Bush said, announcing the declaration at the White House early on Thursday morning. “If it continues to make the right choices it can repair its relationship with the international community.”
Removing North Korea from the sanctions of the Trading With the Enemy Act, which dates to World War I, would leave only Cuba subject to it. North Korea will become eligible for some additional types of American aid and for loans from international institutions like the World Bank. The accord clears the way for more international shipments of food and fuel to North Korea, which has severe shortages of both commodities.
But other sanctions on North Korea will remain, at least for now, prohibiting or restricting American companies from doing business there. North Korean assets in the United States that have been frozen under previous orders are not expected to be released immediately.
New York Times [June 27, 2008]