The Bush administration says it cannot certify to Congress that North Korea is in full compliance with its 1994 Agreed Framework accord with the United States, which froze its suspect nuclear program. However, the United States will continue abiding terms of the agreement, including the scheduled provision to North Korea this year of 500,000 metric tons of fuel oil.
The administration is not accusing North Korea of violating the 1994 deal, under which Pyongyang shut down a nuclear program suspected of having a weapons component. In exchange, North Korea received a promise of two western-designed nuclear power plants and interim fuel oil supplies.
However the Bush administration does say the secretive government in Pyongyang has not provided enough evidence for the White House to certify its compliance to Congress.
Thus, the president has decided to issue a waiver on national security grounds, allowing U.S. commitments to North Korea to be kept, but at the same time putting Pyongyang on notice that the deal may be in jeopardy unless it is more forthcoming.
White House spokesman Ari Fleisher called the decision a "strong message" to the North Koreans that they need to comply with their international obligations. "What this means is that this is a way to encourage the North to begin full cooperation with international monitors, as required under the Agreed Framework," he said. "Waivers will be granted that will allow continuation of all the provisions under the Agreed Framework. But there's no question that the President has concerns. We have not been provided with sufficient information by the North Koreans. And concerns remain about the compliance with the agreed framework."
Among other things, administration officials say Pyongyang has not adequately accounted for nuclear material it possessed at the time the framework accord was concluded.
They say it also delaying mandated international inspections of its nuclear research facility at Yongbyon - a problem that has greatly set back the construction timetable for the safeguarded nuclear power plants North Korea has been promised.
President Bush's waiver decision means that despite the lack of certification, the United States will still provide North Korea with 500,000 tons of fuel oil this year, about $95 million worth, to help meet its current energy needs.
Briefing reporters here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this underlines U.S. good faith with regard to the 1994 accord as well as the administration's continued interest in dialogue with the north on matters of concern to both sides.
"The goal of this process, the goal of the decisions we are making now, is to encourage North Korea to begin full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency as is required under the Agreed Framework," he said. "We have made clear we're seriously interested in re-opening a dialogue with the North Koreans and we remain prepared to meet with them any time, any place, to discuss any issues they want to discuss, with no conditions."
For its part, the administration says it wants to discuss, in such a forum, North Korea's missile program and exports of missile and other military technology. These factors were cited by President Bush when he listed North Korea in his State of the Union address in January, as part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq.
Despite North Korea's angry reaction to the speech, diplomats of the two sides met in New York last week in a continuation of working-level contacts between the governments.
There were no details given of the March 13 meeting involving U.S. envoy for North Korea Jack Pritchard and North Korea's U.N. ambassador Pak Gil-Yon, though the State Department said the discussions would continue at a later date.