N. Korea agrees to convene nuclear talks this month

China poised to be host of six-nation discussions

July 10, 2005|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEIJING - After refusing to negotiate with the United States and other nations for more than a year, North Korea broke its standstill late yesterday and agreed to convene talks later this month about devising a strategy to eliminate its nuclear weapons program.

As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in China to launch a four-nation tour of Asia, the North Korean government declared its intention to reopen diplomatic talks over the dismantling of its weapons program.

The agreement was reached at a private dinner here between a top U.S. official and his North Korean counterpart hours before Rice opened a series of high-level meetings today. The announcement was made by the North Korean Central News Agency, which issued a statement from Pyongyang, and was reiterated by a senior Bush administration official traveling with Rice.

The talks, which officials said were designed to achieve a "denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," are scheduled to resume the week of July 25.

Negotiations to disarm North Korea's nuclear capabilities have appeared to gain momentum before, but the dinner agreement reached between Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill and North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan marked the first time that a date has been set for the talks to resume.

China, which the United States believes holds the greatest leverage over North Korea, is poised to be host to the talks, which will include North and South Korea, Japan, Russia and the United States.

"Obviously, you don't have talks just for the sake of talks," Rice told reporters before arriving in Beijing. "You have talks to make progress."

Rice was to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and other government officials to formally announce the agreement this morning.

Even before Rice arrived, China announced that former Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan would travel to Pyongyang this week for a rare meeting to begin discussions about the talks.

While senior administration officials expressed optimism about the agreement, they were tempering their outlook because of the unpredictability of the talks with North Korea.

But one official said North Korea might have determined that the only way to get energy assistance and economic aid is through the six-party talks.

The secretary's trip to East Asia is her second since March. During a 20-hour flight from Washington, she said it was a "good time to take stock" of the discussions. She gave no indication, however, that an agreement to end the stalemate was in the works.

"There is a lot of activity, and sometimes all of that activity comes to naught," Rice said. "But often all of that activity, if channeled, can produce an outcome, and I wanted to come out and give the best chance that I thought we could to try and produce an outcome."

Still, she said the United States had no intention of creating fresh incentives for North Korea, as South Korea has suggested, until the Communist nation agreed to rejoin the discussions and gave its reaction to the proposal that has been on the table for more than a year. North Korean officials have said the talks would not proceed unless Washington began treating Pyongyang with more respect.

"We have not been talking about enhancement of the current proposals," Rice said, saying that North Korea had yet to respond to U.S. offers for economic or energy aid in exchange for a full accounting of its weapons program. "I'm prepared to listen to what people think, but as I've said, it's important to get a response to the proposals."

Rice spoke to reporters after leaving Washington en route to China. The secretary will also visit Japan, South Korea and Thailand.

Although Rice didn't know about the agreement until she arrived in Beijing late yesterday, she spoke to reporters Friday about North Korea in unusually gentle terms, twice pointing out that the U.S. has no intent to attack or invade the nation.

It was a sharp departure from earlier this year, when she raised the ire of North Korean officials after calling the country one of the world's "outposts of tyranny."

Since North Korea said in February that it had nuclear weapons, the United States and the other governments have been unable to lure Pyongyang back to the table.

China is considered a crucial link because it supplies North Korea much of its energy.

The talks between the U.S. and China come against the backdrop of a new controversy in an already complicated relationship.

Early this month, the Chinese government and U.S. Congress traded insults and accusations over an attempt by a Chinese energy company to buy Unocal Corp., an American oil company.

Four days after the House of Representatives approved legislation to block the proposed takeover, citing a national security threat, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded that Congress "correct its mistaken ways of politicizing economic and trade issues."

The Bush administration has sought to distance itself from the dispute.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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