North Korea widens scope of talks on nuclear program

Offer to negotiate adds neighbor nations to U.S.

April 13, 2003|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea - In its first concession in months, North Korea said yesterday that it would be willing to negotiate over its nuclear plans in whatever forum is preferred by the United States.

The offer was made in a statement by North Korea's official news service. The conciliatory tone and timing of the North Korean government's softening of its stance on bargaining follows the swift U.S. military victory in Iraq.

Until now, North Korea has refused to talk to intermediaries or international organizations, such as the United Nations, over the nuclear program it resumed last year in violation of a 1994 agreement. It has insisted that talks could be held only directly with the United States.

But in yesterday's statement, attributed to an unnamed spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, it said it would accept talks in a multilateral setting.

"If the U.S. is ready to make a bold switch-over in its Korea policy for a settlement of the nuclear issue, North Korea will not stick to any particular dialogue format," read the statement carried by the KCNA news service. "The solution to the issue depends on what is the real intention of the U.S."

U.S. officials interpreted the statement as signaling a new potential for resolving the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, which Washington believes include building an arsenal.

"We noted the statement with interest. And we expect to follow up through appropriate diplomatic channels," State Department spokeswoman Amanda Batt said yesterday.

The United States continues to seek a "peaceful end" to North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program "through diplomacy and in close consultation with our allies" in other concerned states, Batt said.

Since October, North Korea has expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors and restarted a small nuclear reactor. It has also become the first country to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a move that took effect Thursday.

But in recent weeks, there have been a few clues that North Korea might be reining in the hard-line rhetoric and tactics it had been employing with regard to its nuclear plans. Most notably, it has not conducted a ballistic missile test and has not restarted a reprocessing plant.

Some recent visitors to Pyongyang have said the North Korean leadership is terrified that it will be the next target of U.S. pre-emptive strikes after the war in Iraq - and that, as in Iraq, Washington will seek a change of regime. President Bush has expressed disdain for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in much the same terms he has used for Saddam Hussein.

"I expect they have been spending a lot of time in their bunkers, watching the war on CNN," said a former South Korean official who maintains close ties to the government in Seoul.

Pyongyang might also be swayed to engage in multilateral talks by increased pressure from its powerful neighbors. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Alexander Losyukov, was quoted Friday as saying that Russia might reconsider its long-standing opposition to sanctions against North Korea if the government persists with its nuclear program.

Last month, China reportedly cut off an oil pipeline to North Korea for three days in what was widely viewed as a message to Pyongyang to get back in line.

Barbara Demick is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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