Rice hopeful of renewed talks with North Korea

Diplomatic activity among Asian nations is called promising


ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed cautious hope yesterday that North Korea could be coaxed back to participate in talks to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, referring to a flurry of new diplomatic initiatives in Asia.

"We have to keep opening doors to see if we can get this started again," Rice said of the six-nation talks.

The multilateral talks have been frozen for nearly a year, during which time Pyongyang is believed to have expanded its nuclear arsenal.

The North Koreans have declined to return to the negotiating table, apparently hoping to first wrest concessions from the United States and its partners.

Nuclear weapons

The North's nuclear weapons program, along with one that Iran is suspected of pursuing, are President Bush's principal challenges in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration faces heavy criticism from congressional Democrats and others for failing to address the challenge more urgently and for spurning direct one-on-one talks with North Korean officials.

The one-on-one talks have been a recurring demand from North Korea.

Much of the diplomatic activity has come from North Korea's neighbors.

South Korea's unification minister met last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and afterward said that Kim seemed ready to return to the talks.

Seoul is reportedly preparing to offer a major package of aid to its impoverished neighbor.

Rice, beginning a four-nation trip to East Asia, called the South Korean ideas "very interesting."

But she expressed serious doubts about any plan to help North Korea with nuclear power for civilian energy purposes, because of the danger that such technologies could be diverted to military aims.

"Obviously, the proliferation risks attendant to nuclear power are very great," she said.

Under a 1994 deal, the United States, Japan and South Korea were helping build light-water nuclear power reactors in energy-starved North Korea.

Framework fails

But that deal, called the Agreed Framework, fell apart after the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of maintaining a covert uranium-enrichment program for nuclear weapons.

Rice, on her second Asia trip as secretary of state, plans to stop in China, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.

She disputed news reports saying she would insist that China, North Korea's closest ally, increase the pressure on its neighbor.

"I'm not going with a list of things that we want the Chinese to do," she said.

Rice said she wasn't bringing any sweeteners to an existing U.S. proposal - made in a previous round of the talks - of energy aid and security assurances for North Korea if it ends its nuclear programs.

Rather, Rice depicted the mission as one of taking stock and trying to build on the series of recent contacts with North Korea.

At a meeting of midlevel U.S. and North Korean officials in New York last month, the Koreans indicated a willingness to return to the talks but declined to set a firm date.

`A lot of ferment'

China is preparing to send a high-level envoy to North Korea.

"There's a lot of ferment. There's a lot of activity," Rice said.

"Sometimes all that activity comes to naught. But often, all of that activity, if channeled, can produce an outcome," she said.

Along with the two Koreas, the six-party talks comprise China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

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