Korea plan talks on nuclear arms

U.S., N.

Administration goal: persuading Pyongyang to abandon program

April 17, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration yesterday described meetings scheduled for next week with North Korean officials in Beijing as a step that it hopes will lead to Pyongyang's abandonment of its nuclear weapons program.

The administration said it did not expect a quick breakthrough in getting North Korea to halt its nuclear program. Officials fear such weapons could either be used to threaten the North's neighbors or be sold to terrorists or other rogue nations.

But the announcement of the planned meeting involving North Korea, the United States and China serves to lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula at a time when the United States is preoccupied with stabilizing postwar Iraq. The United States maintains 37,000 troops in South Korea to keep watch on what is perhaps the world's most heavily armed border.

"We don't anticipate an immediate breakthrough, but we're looking for progress," said Sean McCormack, a national security spokesman at the White House.

The White House credited China with bringing sufficient pressure to bear on North Korea to agree to the talks in a format that was also acceptable to the United States.

"I think that at our urging, China, at a very senior level, pressed the North Koreans to agree to multilateral talks, as did South Korea and Japan," McCormack said.

In the view of some, North Korea's new flexibility shows a ripple effect around the world of America's quick success in destroying the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Bush has listed North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.

"This war on Iraq seems to have become a significant opportunity in deciding the landscape of international politics," Ra Jong-il, South Korea's top security adviser, told reporters Monday.

The fear that the United States might attack North Korea after Iraq "caused [Pyongyang] to loosen up a bit," said Donald P. Gregg, president of the Korea Society and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

But he also said that the North Koreans "have been getting strong messages from China and Russia that nuclear weapons in North Korea are something that no one in the region wants to see."

The talks will mark the first time that American and North Korean officials have met face to face since October, when Pyongyang stunned the United States by defiantly confirming U.S. suspicions that it had a program to enrich uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons.

Since then, North Korea has taken a series of steps to break out of all international supervision of its nuclear program - disabling cameras installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, expelling inspectors, taking steps toward restarting a nuclear reactor and announcing its intention to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

As the crisis grew, North Korea and the United States each clung to its own conditions for resuming a dialogue aimed at ending the tensions. North Korea insisted on talking directly with Washington, excluding the two nations -South Korea and Japan - to which the North poses the greatest threat.

The United States insisted that any negotiations with North Korea be "multilateral," indicating that they would include Japan and South Korea. The U.S. position was designed to force North Korea to deal with its neighbors and to keep the nuclear issue from being portrayed as a solely a matter of American concern.

With China acting as intermediary, both sides eased up on their conditions. While China is listed as a full participant, it will effectively serve as "chaperone," according to Robert Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state dealing with weapons proliferation.

The agenda won't be confined to nuclear weapons. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said, "Our goal for multilateral talks is to discuss with North Korea how they can bring about a verifiable and irreversible end to their nuclear weapons program."

But he also said, "I'm sure the North Koreans have issues they want to bring to the table."

The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by James Kelly, an assistant secretary of state with responsibility for East Asian affairs.

While agreeing to three-way talks at the outset, the Bush administration wants to open them up as soon as possible to include South Korea and Japan, a point President Bush stressed yesterday in a telephone conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Strain between Tokyo and Pyongyang has deepened since North Korea last year admitted abducting Japanese nationals during the Cold War. North Korea allowed five Japanese to return home but has refused to allow their children to join them.

In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan welcomed the talks but warned that if his country did not get to participate, it would not contribute to any aid package for North Korea that results from the talks.

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