Official Washington is overwhelmingly occupied with anticipation.
The latest report on Iraq presented by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker is due next week. Few can expect the report on progress in Iraq, no matter how optimistic, to drown out calls to start bringing American troops home.
On the other side of the Pacific, however, there seems to be more hope of making steady progress toward the goal of getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill announced an agreement which will allow a small team of nuclear experts to travel next week to Pyongyang and Yongbyon, where they will begin to survey sites associated with North Korea's nuclear program. "We think this is a very positive step," Hill told reporters in Sydney, Australia, where he was attending the annual APEC summit.
Technical experts from the U.S., Russia and China will travel to North Korea, hoping, Hill says, that "they can agree on some disabling measures that, first of all, meet the definition of disabling - which is to make it very difficult to bring the facility back on line." At a minimum, the team will concentrate on disabling Yongbyon's 5-megawatt reactor, a fuel fabrication facility and a reprocessing facility at the site. North Korea has agreed that disablement occur by the end of this year.
The fact that North Korea has agreed to allow the IAEA inspectors back into the country and now has agreed to let technical experts from three nuclear powers to come in and examine the Yongbyon facility with a specific goal of disabling it is a "positive step," indeed.
While the technical experts go about their work at Yongbyon, Hill and his fellow negotiators in the Six Party Talks - including China, Russia, South Korea and Japan - are working on implementing another key aspect already agreed to in principle: North Korea's declaration of its nuclear programs.
Before he left for a recent negotiating session in Geneva with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gae Gwan, Hill told reporters in Washington, "We need a declaration that involves all of their nuclear programs and we need clarity and, in particular, on a program that is not yet acknowledged, which is uranium enrichment." Getting a full and complete declaration is another goal Hill hopes to achieve by Dec. 31.
Of course, the North Koreans won't fulfill the disabling and declaration phases unless and until they get something in return. At or near the top of their list of demands is being taken off Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Although there are several indications that the Bush administration may be willing to do this, there are legal constraints that first have to be met, before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, ultimately, President George W. Bush make the political decision to remove the government of Kim Jong Il from the list.
One senior administration official familiar with the complexities of the negotiations noted that Mr. Bush's decision may be affected by concerns about Japan's separate negotiations with North Korea over an issue very important in Tokyo: the abduction of Japanese citizens by the North Korean government. As one senior American official said, at a minimum, "there must be movement if not resolution of the abduction issue."
Hill, knowing all too well the pitfalls of previous negotiating advances with the North Koreans, wouldn't allow himself the luxury of calling the progress on disabling Yongbyon a "major breakthrough."
"This is a long process. We're not at the end. We're not even at the beginning of the end," Hill said in Sydney, "so I'm just going to keep my adrenaline in check for the time being."
Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker would undoubtedly be more than satisfied to do the same.
By Charles M. Wolfson