WASHINGTON — North Korea has slowed the dismantling of its nuclear reactor because it hasn't received the amount of fuel oil it was promised, State Department envoy Christopher Hill said Wednesday.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hill confirmed that North Korea's delay in dismantling the Yongbyon nuclear plant was in response to what it perceives as slow delivery of the oil. North Korea has gone from three shifts day at the reactor site to a single shift.
"There is a perception among the North Koreans that they have moved faster on disablement than we have on fuel oil," said Hill, the assistant secretary of state who's leading six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea.
North Korea, he said, has received about 20 percent of the 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil that it was promised in exchange for disabling the reactor. The shipments were to move in tandem with the disabling of the plant.
Hill blamed the slow oil delivery on logistical problems. He said North Korea's ports could handle only the delivery of 50,000 tons of fuel oil at a time. Russia has been unable to deliver its own fuel oil to North Korea and instead purchased and sent a shipment from Singapore, Hill said.
Critics of President Bush's attempt at rapprochement with North Korea have suggested that Pyongyang is stalling on dismantling the reactor in hopes that it will be able to win more favorable concessions from the next U.S. president. They note that North Korea has missed other commitments, including a Dec. 31 deadline for completely declaring its nuclear programs, peaceful or otherwise.
Hill said the United States also was asking North Korea to provide production records for plutonium that would have been produced by the Yongbyon reactor, in addition to destroying the reactor itself. Washington wants a verifiable accounting of how much plutonium North Korea has made to make certain that no plutonium has gone to terrorist groups or nations that are hostile to U.S. interests.
"What we've asked for is to get not only a figure but the production records that got them to that figure," Hill explained, adding that "technical people can look at figures like an auditor looks at a business ledger."
The disabling of the reactor could face even more delays because South Korea's new conservative president-elect, Lee Myung Bak, has said he'll link humanitarian assistance to North Korea to that country's progress on denuclearization.
In separate Senate testimony Tuesday, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell accused North Korea of continuing a uranium-enrichment program and nuclear proliferation, but gave no details.
Hill said talks were at a "critical, challenging point" and repeated that if North Korea were to give up its nuclear program, it could count on full diplomatic relations with Washington. That could finally lead to a formal end to the 1950-1953 Korean War.
Hill said he remained optimistic about efforts to engage North Korea, which Bush famously branded part of an "axis of evil" when he came into office and later accused of pursuing a covert uranium-enrichment program.
Hill said it would be difficult to win verifiable disarmament from a dictatorship that long had prided itself on its isolation from the outside world, however. He revealed that he was rebuffed last year when he tried to deliver a letter from Bush to North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il.
"To be very frank with you, I was hoping I could deliver that letter directly to make sure nothing was being lost in transmission," Hill said. "I waited until the last hour of my 48-hour visit before I conveyed it to the foreign minister." North Korea responded later with a brief oral statement and little detail.
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Christopher Hill's prepared remarks.