U.S. offers talks with N. Korea on nuclear program

But Washington refuses concessions to end crisis

Seoul, Tokyo back Bush

January 08, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The United States offered a small olive branch to North Korea yesterday, saying it is willing to talk to Pyongyang but will not make new concessions to prod the North to give up its nuclear weapons programs.

The U.S. offer of talks - which officials pointedly refused to describe as "negotiations" - came after a three-way meeting here between the United States, South Korea and Japan to coordinate their stance on the rapidly escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula.

The three allies issued a toughly worded statement backing the Bush administration's position that North Korea must take "prompt and verifiable action to completely dismantle its nuclear weapons program."

They also expressed alarm at the North's reactivation of a nuclear reactor and plutonium processing complex and the expulsion of United Nations inspectors, steps that could allow the Communist country to add to its suspected stock of two nuclear weapons within months.

However, the demands were coupled with pledges designed to reassure North Korea, which claims it is under threat from U.S. military power and President Bush's designation of it as a member of an "axis of evil."

"The United States is willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community," the statement said. "However, the U.S. delegation stressed that the United States will not provide quid pro quos to North Korea to live up to its existing obligations."

North Korea responded defiantly yesterday to a warning a day earlier from the United Nations' nuclear watchdog agency about possible sanctions with a warning that sanctions against it would lead to war.

"Sanctions mean a war, and the war knows no mercy," said the North's official Korean Central News Agency, which reported that 100,000 people in Pyongyang rallied in support of the government.

North Korea's shrill threat, the tone of which is typical of the propaganda that flows from the government-run news agency, came in reaction to a resolution adopted Monday by the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It condemned North Korea for expelling IAEA inspectors and for taking steps to reactivate its mothballed Yongbyon nuclear complex, which can produce weapons-grade plutonium.

The IAEA board, at an emergency meeting in Vienna, Austria, gave North Korea a last chance to comply with the 1994 agreement that closed the complex. It warned that economic sanctions or other actions could result if North Korea refuses and the matter is referred to the U.N. Security Council.

In Washington, the U.S. statements, and repetition of promises not to invade North Korea, appeared designed to cool the atmosphere surrounding the North's nuclear ambitions. But they leave no clear path for resolving the crisis that began in October with Pyongyang's admission that it has a covert uranium-based nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington.

The U.S. administration has been under intense pressure, particularly from South Korea and Russia, to open dialogue with North Korea.

But Washington has refused to negotiate, arguing that making new concessions to get North Korea to abide by promises to forswear nuclear weapons would encourage future nuclear brinkmanship.

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