A `bold' proposal from North Korea

U.S. official says new plan to resolve standoff over weapons is worth a look

April 27, 2003|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea has put forward a new proposal for resolving its nuclear standoff with the United States that might merit further consideration, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly told Asian officials yesterday before heading back to Washington.

Although details of the proposal presented last week during talks in Beijing were not released, it was believed to be a new spin on North Korea's previous offer to suspend its nuclear program in return for guarantees that the United States would not launch a military attack against it.

Despite the North's stunning boast at last week's talks with U.S. and Chinese representatives that it has nuclear weapons, officials who met with Kelly are said to believe that he came away from his meeting with the North Koreans more optimistic than after the two sides' previous encounter in October.

In Tokyo, Kelly told Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda that the North Koreans had made a "bold, new proposal" that would be examined after his return to Washington, according to a Foreign Ministry official. Kelly also suggested that the United States would hold a meeting shortly with Japan and South Korea to discuss ways that they might be included in the next round of talks with the North Koreans - a multilateral approach that Washington has consistently favored.

South Korean representatives were scheduled to fly to the North Korean capital today for three days of Cabinet-level talks with their North Korean counterparts. The South Korean national security council, which met yesterday, said in a statement that Seoul's representatives would "strongly urge North Korea for an abolition of its nuclear program and a change of attitude."

There were reports, however, that the North might abruptly cancel the meetings as it did Cabinet-level talks that had been set for this month.

South Korean analysts have suggested that North Korea's claim that it has nuclear weapons - something that has been suspected for years but never confirmed - was an attempt to strengthen its bargaining position with the United States.

Washington has taken the position that it will not agree to a repeat of a 1994 deal in which North Korea was given energy assistance in return for promises of freezing its nuclear program. North Korea was later found to be cheating on those pledges.

"We are not going to give a quid pro quo to get rid of a nuclear weapons program that never should have existed in the first place," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday.

Moon Chung In, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said North Korea is now looking primarily for guarantees that the Bush administration isn't planning an Iraq-style effort to overthrow its regime.

"North Korea is desperate to have talks. They are not asking for economic assistance at the moment - it is security assurances," Moon said.

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

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