Energy aid eyed as Korea solution

U.S. envoy says assistance is possible if North halts nuclear weapons program

`There may be opportunities'

Envoy starts trip to Asia over standoff by meeting with South's future leader

January 13, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEOUL, South Korea - The United States may help supply much-needed energy to North Korea if the regime agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, a top U.S. envoy said this morning, apparently nudging U.S. policy away from a blanket ban on discussing inducements for Pyongyang if it bows to international pressure.

"Once we get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors, with other countries to help North Korea in the energy area," Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly said at a news conference in Seoul after meeting with South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun.

Kelly offered a rare opening to defuse an escalating crisis on the Korean peninsula that began with his talks in Pyongyang in October, when he said North Korean officials acknowledged to him that they were secretly building a uranium-enrichment program.

"This is the first sign of the U.S. willing to compromise a little bit," said Lee Chung Min, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "Earlier, it seemed like they were headed toward a collision course; neither side was really willing to bend.

"I give a lot of credit to the Bush administration for showing flexibility," he said. "Now really it's up to the North Koreans."

Since the October talks, the United States has halted shipments of fuel oil to the North that were part of a 1994 agreement, under which Pyongyang was to abandon nuclear weapons development. The North has expelled atomic inspectors and threatened to reopen a nuclear plant that could produce plutonium for nuclear bombs. North Korea has demanded direct negotiations with and a "nonaggression pact" from the United States in exchange for retreating from its current course, but the Bush administration has declined to engage Pyongyang directly.

The North has responded by intensifying the crisis. On Friday, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the international Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and on Saturday a North Korean diplomat in Beijing said his country might drop its moratorium on missile testing - all while North Korean diplomats met in New Mexico with Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

The recent U.S. approach to North Korea has been perhaps as unpredictable as North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's approach to the world. The Bush administration first said it would not talk to the North until it dropped its nuclear weapons program, insisting that it could not reward North Korea's recent actions. Then officials in Washington and Seoul said last week that they were willing to participate in talks but not negotiate inducements.

But North Korea's energy shortage ultimately lies at the center of any diplomatic resolution to the crisis, just as it played a role in the 1994 Agreed Framework, and just as it is being used as a diplomatic weapon in the current standoff.

In 1994, when the Clinton administration drew up plans for an air strike on a North Korean nuclear facility at Yongbyon, the North agreed to close its reactor there and its nuclear ambitions in exchange for shipments of heavy fuel oil and the eventual construction of two light-water reactors.

In November, the Bush administration, arguing that the North had not lived up to the agreement, cut off those oil shipments before the crucial winter months in the North.

Kelly, who arrived in Seoul yesterday, will meet with top South Korean officials before leaving tomorrow for China on a tour of Asia, during which he will meet with neighboring nations to search for a path out of the crisis. China, which shares a border with North Korea and supplies aid to the nation, was described by one U.S. diplomat here recently as North Korea's "life support."

Besides his comments about North Korea's energy shortage, Kelly did not discuss in detail his approach to the North Korean issue on this trip, which will also take him to Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. He dismissed as "disappointing" recent reports from the North Koreans' meeting with Richardson.

"We really hadn't heard anything from the North Koreans speaking to him that we hadn't heard" in other public comments, Kelly said. Those statements have included accusations that the United States is plotting to invade the Communist country and that the North was forced to reactivate its nuclear facilities because Washington reneged on pledges to provide energy.

For many South Koreans, Kelly is a symbol of the uncertainty at the heart of the volatile rhetorical exchanges between the North and the United States. Many here, including some experts on North Korea, are convinced of Pyongyang's claims that Kelly misunderstood North Korean statements that he characterized in October as an acknowledgment of a secret nuclear program.

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