U.S. dispatches officials for N. Korea nuclear talks

Three days of meetings in Beijing begin tomorrow in bid to break impasse


TOKYO - The Bush administration dispatched a high-level team to Beijing yesterday for talks involving the United States, China and North Korea that will seek to break a six-month diplomatic impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

The meetings will run tomorrow through Friday in Beijing.

The departure of the U.S. team followed a weekend diplomatic flap in which North Korea issued a confusing claim that it had begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods and then backtracked.

The Bush administration had hoped for broader multilateral talks that would include Russia, Japan and South Korea. As the proposed talks grew more limited, Washington sought to portray the Beijing meetings as simply a venue for "initial" discussions.

"We really don't think that without the participation of Japan and South Korea one could expect to achieve a substantive outcome," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Washington has called on North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program, while Pyongyang demands U.S. assurances that it won't be attacked.

The U.S. delegation is led by James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, and includes officials from the Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Security Council, Boucher said. The Chinese and North Korean teams are of an equally senior level, he said.

China is North Korea's closest friend and most important outside source of food and fuel.

The format of the talks remained unclear. The Bush administration has characterized them as a three-way exchange of views, with full participation by China, a point that President Bush reiterated Sunday near his Texas ranch.

"China is assuming a very important responsibility," Bush said, adding that multilateral diplomatic pressure could lead to "a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals."

Boucher said Chinese officials "intend to participate in the talks and not just host them."

Chinese officials have suggested they would take a less active role in the talks.

In any event, the meetings signify a face-saving compromise for both sides. Washington has insisted that only multilateral talks can resolve the nuclear crisis, while Pyongyang has demanded direct bilateral talks with the United States.

Perceived negotiating postures may be crucial in the early phase of talks.

"What the North Koreans need to leave an impression about is that they have not gone beyond the point of no return" in their quest for nuclear weapons, said Alan Romberg, director of the China program at the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington institute that seeks international peace and security. "The U.S. needs to satisfy North Korea that whatever the rhetoric, we are open to a new relationship."

North Korea agreed in 1994 to freeze its nuclear weapons program by shutting down a 5-megawatt nuclear power reactor and a plutonium extraction facility in Yongbyon.

Separately, North Korea announced it was willing to resume ministerial-level talks with Seoul on Sunday in Pyongyang.

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