WASHINGTON - Meeting in Berlin, Germany in January 2007, in what was portrayed at the time as an accidental encounter, Christopher Hill, the State Department's top Asia hand, and his North Korean counterpart sketched out a deal to resume nuclear negotiations.
The North Koreans had proposed the venue, but Hill had to find an excuse to be there. "I need to be in Berlin, and I need a cover story," Hill told his mentor and one-time boss, Richard Holbrooke, the former U.N. ambassador. Holbrooke arranged for Hill to deliver a speech.
Just three months earlier, North Korea had exploded its first atomic device. The Bush administration responded to the underground test with a campaign for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, and Chinese-led six-nation talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea fell into a deep freeze.
The talks between Hill, known for his aggressive, risk-taking diplomacy, and North Korean envoy Kim Kae-gwan led to a pair of public agreements last year that culminated in this week's nuclear breakthrough.
North Korea on Thursday handed over a 60-page declaration of its nuclear activities, and President Bush announced a partial lifting of U.S. sanctions.
The Berlin talks also marked a historic turnabout for President Bush, current and former U.S. officials said.
Until then, Bush had refused to engage in one-on-one diplomacy with a regime he reviled, at least outside the Chinese-organized six-nation framework. He still refuses direct talks with Iran, another troublesome nuclear aspirant.
"That was the change, the single point. You can put your finger on that, and watch the pivot," said Jack Pritchard, who served as Bush's special envoy for North Korea from 2001-2003.
Added Holbrooke: "No matter how much they try to say it wasn't a change in policy, it was," and led directly to this week's events.
Now Bush, who for most of his presidency has been accused of using too little diplomacy, faces unfamiliar criticism that he has given away too much.
Even some proponents of the peace talks say North Korea's nuclear declaration contains less than it promised last year. It covers North Korea's known efforts to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, but says nothing about the weapons themselves - nor about an alleged covert program aimed at a uranium-based bomb or the North's nuclear cooperation with countries such as Syria.
"I think it's a very sad day. ... It reflects the collapse of the Bush doctrine," said former undersecretary of state John Bolton, a leading hawk on proliferation issues.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argue that it's important to focus first on the most immediate threat - the North's plutonium stock - and advance in stages.
But "proceeding in stages is entirely advantageous to North Korea," because it will it draw out every step to gain more rewards, Bolton said.
Precisely why Bush changed course so dramatically on North Korea - a country he famously included in his "Axis of Evil" and whose leader, Kim Jong Il, he said he loathed - remains a mystery.
But officials cite the White House's plate was overflowing with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the declining influence of administration hawks such as former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bolton; the Republican defeat in the November 2006 mid-term elections; and the tireless efforts of Hill, who had Rice's consistent backing.
Bush also may have wanted a historic foreign policy agreement before he left office.
"There's certainly a desire on the legacy issue here," said Carolyn Leddy, who worked on counter-proliferation at the White House's National Security Council until last November, and is critical of the deal Bush struck.
Leddy recalled that after the October 2006 North Korean nuclear test, "we were all geared up to look at new sanctions mechanisms." Then, she said, "all off a sudden, it was no more sanctions ... no more sticks."
The stage was set for the two days of meetings in Berlin in January.
Holbrooke, telling his part of the story for the first time, told McClatchy Newspapers that he invited Hill, who served as his deputy in the 1995 Dayton negotiations that ended the war in Bosnia, to give a speech to the American Academy in Berlin, which Holbrooke chairs. A press conference was scheduled, in case Hill had important news to announce. Rice also happened to be en route to Berlin, from a mission to the Middle East.
The outlines of a deal that Hill and North Korea's Kim reached were codified the following month at the six-party talks.
The North would shut down its Yongbyon nuclear reactor and deliver a list of its nuclear programs. North Korea in return would get heavy fuel oil for its electricity needs, and Washington would begin removing it from its list of state sponsor of terrorism, and from under the Trading with the Enemy Act.
Bush has doggedly stuck to the deal, even as criticism from his conservative allies has mounted.
Not even intelligence data showing North Korea helped Syria construct an alleged nuclear reactor - Israel bombed the facility last September - derailed it.
"If he could, (Bush) would much rather ignore, isolate and verbally condemn North Korea," said Jon Wolfsthal, a proliferation expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Reality intervened," he said. "The Bush doctrine, the neoconservative view of regime change as a tool for nonproliferation, was left on the battlefields of Iraq."
© 2008 McClatchy Newspapers