Commentary Magazine


Poisoning the Process

Today, the White House announced that President Bush sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il urging him to make a full disclosure of his country’s nuclear activities. The letter reinforces comments made by the State Department’s Christopher Hill that Pyongyang must come clean on the enrichment of uranium.

Hill’s demand comes on the heels of his statement yesterday that there was still no agreement between Washington and Pyongyang as to the information that North Korea must provide about its nuclear weapons. The success or failure of American efforts to disarm the militant state will almost entirely depend on its willingness to deliver a complete inventory of its programs and facilities as required by the agreement reached in February in Beijing at the six-party talks.

How will we know whether Pyongyang is telling the truth when it issues its disclosure? The United States has, over the course of more than two decades, collected information regarding the extent of the North Korean programs to build bombs based on both plutonium and uranium cores. American analysts will be comparing what the North has released with information previously obtained. If there is a wide discrepancy, then we know Kim Jong Il has no intention of giving up his arsenal of atomic weaponry.

Unfortunately, Hill, the American representative at the six-party negotiations, has been helping the North Koreans. For instance, in early October he publicly stated that Pyongyang possesses about 110 pounds of plutonium obtained from its reactor in Yongbyon. More important, Hill announced on the first of this month that he expected the North Koreans to clear up doubts about the centrifuges and aluminum tubes we know they had previously purchased from a black-market ring based in Pakistan.

Through these public statements, the American diplomat was either telling the North Koreans what we know or reminding them what their disclosure had to include. Moreover, he has had extensive conversations with them in private. As Hill told reporters today, “We’ve had a lot of discussions with them about uranium enrichment.”

It looks like Hill may have coached Pyongyang and thereby compromised the disclosure process, which is critical to the six-party disarmament efforts. By doing so, he is making it more difficult for us to determine whether North Korea’s disclosure, whenever it is delivered, is reliable.

How much damage has Hill caused? If the six-party process is to continue, it is absolutely essential that the intelligence community learn exactly what he has told the North Koreans—and to make an initial assessment whether it will ever be possible for us to measure Pyongyang’s truthfulness. I suspect that the American diplomat has already told too much to his North Korean counterparts.