Bush considers informal pact with N. Korea

President rules out treaty of nonaggression but says he's open to other pledges

Appears to concede to allies

Security deal is aimed at ending nuclear crisis

October 20, 2003|By Maura Reynolds | Maura Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BANGKOK, Thailand -- President Bush took the most conciliatory step yet in his administration's campaign to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, saying yesterday that he would consider signing a deal promising not to attack the isolationist country as long as the guarantee is not a formal treaty.

The president's remarks appear to be a concession to allies, particularly South Korea and China, who have been urging the United States to offer a concrete proposal to restart stalemated disarmament talks.

North Korea has insisted that it will not renounce its nuclear weapons capability unless the United States abandons its "hostile intent," and has demanded a written nonaggression treaty. Bush has said previously he has no intention of invading North Korea, but he has resisted putting bilateral security assurances into writing.

"We will not have a treaty. ... That's off the table," Bush said after meeting with the Thai prime minister on the eve of the annual summit of Asian-Pacific leaders. "Perhaps there are other ways we can look at to say exactly what I said publicly on paper, with our partners' consent."

With North Korea refusing to come back to the bargaining table, the Bush administration has been under growing pressure from its Asian allies to offer North Korea something more positive than a verbal pledge. South Korean diplomats have tried indirectly to let it be known that President Roh Moo Hyun, whose domestic political position is precarious, needs to show positive movement on the North Korean problem, especially now that he has committed to the politically unpopular step of sending South Korean troops to Iraq.

And Chinese diplomats have hinted that the United States needs to show more flexibility toward North Korea. The Bush administration believes that China is vital to any solution of the North Korea nuclear crisis -- and China has opposed sanctioning North Korea in the United Nations Security Council. Some administration officials have argued privately that Washington must make every effort to cooperate with China now if it expects China's help in enforcing a nonproliferation strategy against North Korea later should negotiations fail.

Bush discussed options for a security agreement later in the day with Chinese President Hu Jintao at a one-on-one meeting a day before the two leaders take part in the 21-member Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that begins today.

More talks in doubt

Hu convened the first six-party meeting of regional allies to address the North Korean nuclear crisis in August in Beijing, and is considered influential with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. In addition to North Korea, China and the United States, the six-party group includes South Korea, Japan and Russia.

But Chinese negotiators have since been having trouble luring North Korea back to the bargaining table.

"The president understands that North Koreans are asking for security assurances. He's made it clear -- we all have over time -- that it will not be a treaty or a nonaggression pact," a senior Bush administration official said. "He shared with President Hu some ideas that we will be coming up with in the near future that will be within the six-party multilateral framework that might provide the kind of assurances that the North Koreans would find as a basis to move forward."

The official said it is not clear what form security assurances might take, but said it would likely be an "agreement with a small `a.'" By contrast, treaties have a higher stature in international law and require ratification by the U.S. Senate.

A second administration official said that it was possible that the proposed security agreement could be signed before a complete dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program, as long as the country could demonstrate "verifiable progress."

"We're looking to come up with security assurances within a six-party context so that any moves on our part would be conditional on verifiable progress on their part," the official said. "We're not saying everything has to be done before we will do anything. In fact, we're saying the opposite."

Previously, the administration has taken a harder line, saying no concessions would be made to North Korea until it dismantles its nuclear program.

The second administration official said the Chinese president expressed interest in the idea, and the United States was hopeful Hu would move to play host to another round of six-party talks with the North Koreans to discuss it, perhaps before the end of the year.

Reaction unknown

It is not clear how favorable the North Koreans may be to the idea of a multilateral security agreement. Pyongyang has insisted it will only accept a bilateral nonaggression treaty with the United States.

U.S. officials say the United States is not prepared to sign a direct agreement with the North Koreans because it feels the reclusive communist state has violated such agreements in the past -- including a 1994 deal to freeze its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for energy assistance.

U.S. officials said they believe North Korea would be more hesitant to violate an agreement that also included its neighbors and traditional allies China and Russia.

Bush intends to use the APEC summit to bring security matters -- including the threat of terrorism -- to the top of the group's agenda, even though APEC is focused on trade and economic issues.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Sonni Efron in Washington contributed to this article.

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