U.S. rejects N. Korea's demand for direct talks

White House says nuclear negotiations must include Pyongyang's neighbors

Japan, China, S. Korea back group approach

February 12, 2005|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - The White House rejected yesterday North Korean demands for one-on-one talks with the United States, saying it will discuss Pyongyang's nuclear program only if four neighboring governments also take part.

Japan, China and South Korea joined the U.S. call for North Korea to return to the stalled six-party disarmament talks, a sign of continuing support for the group approach adopted by the Bush administration.

A day after North Korea surprised the world by publicly declaring its nuclear capability, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, "It's not an issue between the United States and North Korea. It's a regional issue, and it's an issue that impacts all of its neighbors."

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said in Sapporo, Japan yesterday, "I understand calls for imposing sanctions [on North Korea] are growing. But we have to urge them to come to the talks in the first place."

Koizumi said the crisis is increasing tensions stemming from a separate diplomatic dispute with North Korea over North Korea's kidnapping of at least 13 Japanese citizens from coastal towns during the Cold War. Five of those abducted have since returned to Japan, and North Korea says the rest are dead, but Japanese public pressure is growing for action, which could include economic sanctions.

Of the nations seeking to disarm North Korea, only Japan is taking new steps to punish North Korea economically.

An amended Liability for Oil Pollution Damage law, which is to go into effect March 1, requires that all ships over 100 tons calling at Japanese ports carry property and indemnity insurance. A seemingly bland piece of legislation, it was drafted with North Korea in mind. In 2003, 2.5 percent of North Korean ships visiting Japan had such insurance.

Japan is North Korea's third-largest trading partner, after China and South Korea. The insurance barrier is expected to affect North Korea's ports along the Sea of Japan coast, a dilapidated, economically depressed area far from Pyongyang, the nation's showcase capital. In recent weeks, one North Korean ship, a passenger-cargo ferry, is known to have bought insurance.

The insurance barrier will be felt at Tokyo's Tsukiji market, the worlds largest fish market, where North Korea is a major supplier of snow crabs, sea urchins and short-neck clams. For North Korean fishing boats, Japan is the best market in the region.

"It will hurt, it will pinch, it will be felt by North Koreans who are significant," said Chuck Downs, an American expert on Korea who wrote Over the Line: North Koreas Negotiating Strategy.

U.S. officials and others have thought for a decade that North Korea had nuclear weapons. But Thursday's declaration was a reminder that the United States faces an urgent proliferation challenge on the Korean Peninsula in addition to the one in Iran. U.S. officials and their allies generally interpreted the North Korean declaration as a sign that the impoverished nation wants to begin negotiations from a strong position.

North Korea's demand for direct talks with the United States was delivered yesterday by Pyongyang's ambassador to the United Nations, Han Sang Ryol.

Although North Korea said Thursday that it intended to abandon the stalled disarmament talks, Han said in an interview with the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh that North Korea would return to the six-party talks "when we see a reason to do so and the conditions are ripe. If the United States moves to have direct dialogue with us, we can take that as a signal that the United States is changing its hostile policy toward us."

He said North Korea has "no other option but to regard the United States' refusal to have direct dialogue with us as an intention not to recognize us and to eliminate our system."

North Korea, which has been eager for energy aid and economic concessions, was angling for direct talks with the United States before agreeing to the six-party negotiations that began in August 2003. U.S. officials think they can best pressure North Korea by drawing in the neighbors, including China, which provides about 80 percent of North Korea's energy needs.

Richard Boucher, the chief State Department spokesman, said yesterday that when North Korea dealt directly with the Clinton administration in the early 1990s, "we got a deal. And then the North Koreans started cheating on the deal very quickly, within a couple of years."

Boucher also noted the shifting statements coming from Pyongyang.

"Yesterday they said they were suspending indefinitely; today they said they will come back under certain conditions," he said. "I don't want to try to parse this rhetoric too much."

North Korea's declaration also brought to light signs that there have been important differences at high levels of the Bush administration over the U.S. approach to North Korea.

One former senior official, speaking in Washington on Thursday, said the United States might have to take a more active approach.

"North Korea reprocesses plutonium, enriches uranium, has their nuclear reactor going and ... announces they have nuclear weapons. And what do we talk about? `When can we have the next meeting?'" said the former official, who requested anonymity. "We haven't started talking about, `When can we stop this North Korean nuclear program?'"

The New York Times News Service and Los Angeles Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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