U.S. drawing a harder line with North Korea?

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, speaking in Seoul on Friday, had this to say about sanctions levied against North Korea for its nuclear test last year: The sanctions are there until the DPRK (North Korea) gets out of the nuclear business. That is when ...

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598361_071105_hill_05.jpg

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, speaking in Seoul on Friday, had this to say about sanctions levied against North Korea for its nuclear test last year:

The sanctions are there until the DPRK (North Korea) gets out of the nuclear business. That is when they ought to be revisited.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, speaking in Seoul on Friday, had this to say about sanctions levied against North Korea for its nuclear test last year:

The sanctions are there until the DPRK (North Korea) gets out of the nuclear business. That is when they ought to be revisited.

Taken at face value, Hill’s comments are an enormous hedge on the agreement with the North. The sanctions will stay in place at least until North Korea’s nuclear program no longer exists—a process that could take years. A U.S. team is beginning to disable North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor today and is expected to complete its work by the end of 2007, but “gets out of the nuclear” business is a broad phrase that could be interpreted any number of ways.

There is also some interesting subtext to Hill’s quote. In early September, Israel destroyed an alleged Syrian nuclear facility that was thought to have been built with North Korean help. It looked to many like the North Koreans were negotiating with Hill in bad faith, threatening to torpedo the six-party talks. But anonymous Bush administration officials told the New York Times last week that the Syrian site had existed as early as 2003; hence, cooperation between Syria and North Korea existed long before the current diplomatic breakthrough with Pyongyang. As the Times‘ William J. Broad and Mark Mazzetti put it:

If North Korea started its Syrian aid long ago, the [Bush administration] officials could argue that the assistance was historical, not current, and that diplomacy should move ahead.

This hasn’t been enough to ease concerns that the United States is treating Pyongyang with kid gloves. Hill’s comments might be an attempt to assuage critics of the North Korea deal. First, they make clear to North Korea that providing nuclear assistance of any kind would violate the deal. Second, Hill implies that sanctions will not go away until Pyongyang’s nuclear program is completely nonexistent—and even then, the sanctions will merely be “revisited,” not lifted automatically. Whether this will be enough to reassure those who believe the United States is taking it easy on North Korea is unclear. I get the sense that some people in the U.S. government won’t be happy until the deal with North Korea is dead and buried.

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