N. Korea, U.S. take step toward diplomatic ties

September 02, 1994|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- The United States dangled a new bunch of carrots before North Korea yesterday, including the first move toward diplomatic relations, in an effort to induce the Communist regime to submit its nuclear program to international inspections.

State Department spokesman Michael McCurry said U.S. officials will travel to Pyongyang on Sept. 10 to discuss possible arrangements for setting up "liaison offices" in each other's capitals.

On the same date, other department experts will meet with the North Koreans in Berlin to talk about replacing their experimental 5-megawatt nuclear reactor, which is suspected of also producing weapons-grade plutonium, with a new reactor designed to produce electricity.

In deference to fears in South Korea that Washington is moving too swiftly toward establishing relations with the North, Mr. McCurry minimized the importance of the talks in Pyongyang and Berlin because, he said, they will be low-level discussions among experts and not policy-makers.

The talks would deal with the facts and technical problems surrounding the larger issues to be negotiated in the high-level talks scheduled to resume in Geneva on Sept. 23.

In those talks, U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci has been seeking North Korean agreement to permit International Atomic Energy Agency inspections of all its nuclear facilities, including two waste sites that could provide evidence that Pyongyang has reprocessed plutonium for use in weapons.

So far, despite U.S. inducements, North Korea has refused to permit such inspections. Nor has the North agreed to dispose, under international safeguards, of hundreds of plutonium-laden reactor fuel rods.

But the North appears to be keeping the pledge that was a primary U.S. condition for continuing the talks: It has frozen its nuclear program and has made no move to reprocess the spent fuel rods.

Mr. McCurry emphasized that next week's talks "are not particularly significant because they cannot resolve any of the issues." And, he added, "no liaison offices can be established unless the nuclear issues are resolved."

The White House also minimized the significance of the talks in Pyongyang, noting that no decisions have been made about opening liaison offices or helping North Korea build a new nuclear power reactor.

"These are simply technical talks that would allow us to be prepared in case that somewhere down the line a decision is made to move forward in establishing a liaison office or something else," White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers said.

"Should the decision be made, this is . . . a step to make sure that we're ready. . . . This is not any kind of a diplomatic conversation. It's technical discussions," she said.

The agenda for the Pyongyang meeting only includes establishing mail service, renting office space and real estate laws.

Nevertheless, although talks on establishing liaison offices may be drawn out, as they have been in the case of Vietnam, the opening of such low-level diplomatic offices is usually a prelude to establishing full diplomatic relations.

And the United States has held out to North Korea the possibility of such relations if it permits inspections of its nuclear facilities and assures the world it is not building nuclear weapons.

At the very least, the unusual journey of U.S. diplomats, however junior, to Pyongyang to talk about opening liaison offices, carries great symbolism.

Earlier this year a State Department official went to the North Korean capital, but only as an interpreter and observer accompanying former President Carter.

Berlin was chosen as the site of the other set of talks, said a senior official, because Germany may be a source of technology and expertise for the new reactor that the United States has promised to secure for North Korea, with financing from Pyongyang's Asian neighbors and Europe.

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