[Update: This doesn’t sound very “newly murky:”
“I have no doubt that North Korea has had a highly enriched uranium program,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said during a visit to Seoul.
“We would expect that when North Korea makes its declaration of nuclear facilities that that would be one of the issues addressed in North Korea’s declaration,” he told a news conference.
Good, if we really have no doubts. Straightforward interpretation is all that can save us now, and this is straightforward. “All” means “all.” The problem is, North Korea (a) probably doesn’t see it that way, (b) is getting a lot of help from some Americans in not seeing it that way, and (c) won’t have much incentive to see things our way if we significantly relax our financial restrictions, or if either we or the South Koreans provide them large amounts of regime-sustaining aid before they deliver. I suspect and hope that Negroponte will raise the issue of the aid that South Korea is already pouring into the North during his conversations in Seoul.]
Original Post: I’ve had plenty of uncomplimentary things to say about Chris Hill, his deal, and his negotiating skills, and I suspect I’m not done saying them. One criticism is that his deal created dangerous ambiguity by failing to specifically mention North Korea’s uranium program. The most dangerous ambiguity turned out to be domestic. Had the term “uranium” been included in the deal’s text, no doubt, we would not have had David Albright and a following of hack journalists trying to pretend that the evidence for that program does not exist. Their demand was no less than that the intelligence community extend its evidentiary uncertainties about the program’s scale, to a conclusive belief in the evidence of absence of any program of any significance. All of this would be for the sake of some greater political good. North Korea’s apologists smelled blood in the water faster than the North Koreans themselves did.
So did conservatives. The backlash against this deal has been substantial, perhaps even substantial enough to stiffen the Administration’s spine. A few days ago, the New York Times was telling us the outline of a “face-saving compromise” that would emerge:
In an effort to make the best of newly murky intelligence about North Korea, Bush administration officials say they plan to tell the North’s nuclear negotiators on Monday that Washington’s doubts about how much progress the country has made in enriching uranium gives North Korea a face-saving way to surrender its nuclear equipment.
This gratuitous editorializing that the intelligence is “newly murky” really comes down to a single public statement by one person, and that statement may have been little more than an effort to acknowledge the uncertainties that North Korea has been so good at creating. That’s a pretty slender reed on which to spin a story as weighty as a centrifuge.
[T]hat ambiguity, officials say, may give North Korea the chance to turn over its equipment with a vague explanation that an effort to produce energy, rather than a bomb, did not work out.
That’s a breathtakingly bad way to start a negotiation with the North Koreans. It’s an invitation for them to concede nothing. David Sanger’s access to White House officials is widely regarded, so you can’t brush this one off. It was almost certainly a trial balloon, floated intentionally. Yet amid much happy talk about how peachy those normalization talks were on Day One, this statement sounded pretty unequivocal.
In a speech earlier in the day at the Japan Society in New York, Hill stressed the importance of North Korea making a full declaration of its nuclear activities, including a highly enriched uranium program the United States believes it has.
In the speech, Hill repeated U.S. assertions that Pyongyang is trying to enrich uranium — allegations that caused a 1994 U.S.-North Korea nuclear agreement to unravel and over which there is debate in Washington after U.S. officials acknowledged some gaps in intelligence.
“There’s a whole list of things that North Korea has been purchasing over the years that are entirely consistent with a highly enriched uranium program,” Hill said.
“If they don’t have a highly enriched uranium program, why did they buy all (this) stuff?” he asked, referring to expensive centrifuges, aluminum tubing and manuals.
And in fact, it’s pretty much the same thing Hill told Congress just last week. Since the signing of the deal itself, what Hill and other U.S. officials have said in public has generally been clear and consistent: North Korea purchased components that could only be used for enriching uranium, and North Korea will have to resolve the questions this raises. I can’t vouch for what people are telling David Sanger off the record, but there’s not really a “debate” among the officials being quoted publicly.
It’s a small piece of good news, although it could easily disappear in the haze of a working group led by China.
Another is that Japan continues to stand firm, meaning that it will focus intense pressure on the United States not to lift North Korea from the terror list unless the abduction issue is solved. It seems mostl likely that the working groups will stall inside the boundaries of this broad compromise for at least another 18 months. That is a possibility that probably worries neither Kim Jong Il, nor any senior State Department officials who may be interested in keeping their jobs through the next Administration.