Korea talks end in muddle

U.S. can't corroborate North official's remarks

Boasting of nuclear weapons

Some optimism remains for diplomatic solution

April 26, 2003|By Barbara Demick and Sonni Efron | Barbara Demick and Sonni Efron,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea - The first talks between the United States and North Korea in six months ended yesterday in confusion over a North Korean envoy's boast that his country has two nuclear bombs and has reprocessed enough plutonium for many more.

U.S. officials said they were unable to corroborate many of the statements made by North Korean Gen. Ri Gun to Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly. And U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies disputed Ri's claim that North Korea's Yongbyon plant has been reprocessing plutonium. That prompted questions about whether Pyongyang was exaggerating its nuclear prowess to try to deter the United States from any military action against North Korea.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which had played host to the talks and aspired to be a peacemaker, reported that the three-day meeting in Beijing had at least produced an agreement to meet again. But State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said the United States had not decided whether to have further talks.

North Korea's position on future talks also was unclear.

The North Koreans were publicly derisive, saying through a Foreign Ministry spokesman that the United States "simply repeated its hackneyed, previous claims without setting forth any new proposals."

Nevertheless, U.S., Chinese and South Korean officials were quick to insist that the lack of initial progress had done nothing to dampen their desire for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.

"Both of them expressed that the issue should be resolved in a peaceful way," said Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, putting a hopeful spin on what in Asia looked like something of a diplomatic fiasco.

"The president continues to believe that this can be a matter that will be solved through diplomacy," said President Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer. "And I think it will also be very interesting to note what China's reaction is to North Korea's admission that it has nuclear weapons."

Although the North Korean behavior was hardly encouraging, U.S. officials pointed out that amid Ri's bluster was an offer to abandon the nuclear weapons programs under certain conditions - and that the United States was analyzing the seriousness of that offer.

Bush said Thursday that what he characterized as a North Korean attempt at blackmail showed why missile defense, long a priority for his administration, is essential, and Fleischer repeated that point yesterday.

"For the critics of missile defense," he said, the North Korean announcement "is an important reminder of why missile defense is an important part of our strategy to defend our country."

Kelly flew to Seoul last night to brief South Korean officials on the talks and was expected to travel to Tokyo this morning. He made no comment to the media.

Transcripts of the talks would be vetted for discrepancies between the English and Korean versions of what was said, Bou- cher said. Subtleties of the Korean language and a North Korean propensity for manipulating translations so that English and Korean versions differ made careful analysis essential, U.S. officials said.

Ri's bombshell came on the sidelines of the meeting, during a lunch break Thursday, when the North Korean negotiator bragged to Kelly that North Korea has developed nuclear weapons and is making more. Although U.S. intelligence had long suspected that North Korea had enough plutonium for one or two bombs, North Korea had never confirmed - or denied - having a bomb.

Many South Koreans who read the subsequent headlines were left bewildered over what the North Korean actually said, why he said it and whether it was true.

"If it's true that the North has nuclear weapons, it violates mutual agreements and would be a major disturbance to peace on the Korean Peninsula and to Northeast Asia," South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan told reporters after meeting with Kelly last night. He added that the North Korean confession would not change Seoul's previously stated hope of resolving the nuclear crisis through diplomatic means.

Many in South Korea blame a policy rift inside the Bush administration for leaving North Korea confused about what the United States' real intentions are. They say the Beijing talks were sabotaged by a leaked memo to The New York Times this week that suggested some support for toppling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's government.

"The North Koreans could easily believe that a regime change is the ultimate goal of the Bush administration and that only by becoming a nuclear power like India or Pakistan will they be able to have better relations with the United States," said Choi Kang, a former South Korean national security adviser.

Barbara Demick and Sonni Efron are reporters for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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