U.S. presents new flexibility in talks with North Korea

Nations focus on timeline of dismantling weapons, providing energy, aid


BEIJING - The Bush administration appeared to show signs of new flexibility in talks with North Korea yesterday, with U.S. and North Korean diplomats meeting here at length to discuss the delicate question of how aid or energy assistance may be provided to the North as it begins the process of dismantling its nuclear arms program.

Delegations from the two countries met alone here for the second straight day to discuss a proposal the administration put forward in June 2004 before North Korea walked away from talks. Christopher R. Hill, who is leading the U.S. delegation, told reporters that the "businesslike" meeting again raised the prospect of a three-month "freeze" on North Korea's nuclear activity, followed by a rapid dismantling of their nuclear plants. In return, aid from South Korea and other neighbors would increase.

In Washington, a senior administration official said the approach to the North was loosely patterned on the administration's dealings with Libya in 2003. That negotiation led to Col. Muammar el Kadafi's decision to give up the central elements of his nuclear program. But North Korea's nuclear infrastructure is far older, far more advanced and far better hidden, and the official said that, at this point, the United States was simply trying to "lay the groundwork" for a disarmament deal that many in Washington believe that Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, is unwilling to take.

Hill declined to give any specifics of the response given by the North Korean vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan, in the meeting. "They talked about the June proposal," Hill said, according to the Kyodo News Agency of Japan. "They talked about their concern about the sequencing of the proposal and the importance they attach to sequencing, where they don't want to have obligations ahead of other people's obligations."

During Bush's first term, Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, was highly critical of President Bill Clinton for signing a deal that front-loaded the benefits to North Korea while putting off the North's disarmament.

Senior U.S. officials say that is still the administration's position, but they say Hill has been given more leeway than his predecessor, James A. Kelly, about what tack to take with the North Koreans, including one-on-one meetings.

Hill seemed to suggest that the United States would be amenable to a step-by-step process under which North Korean concessions were met by rewards from the United States and other participants in the six-nation talks, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Hill said that when North Korea "makes the decision to dismantle its nuclear program permanently, fully, verifiably," the United States and other participants in the talks would take "corresponding measures."

He described the approach as "words for words and actions for actions."

But the word "verifiably" may be a stumbling point, senior administration officials said, just as it was in decades of arms talks with the former Soviet Union. The United States says it does not know where major elements of North Korea's two suspected nuclear programs are - meaning that it is bound to insist on the right to look almost anywhere in the country. It is a step that many in the administration say they do not believe North Korea is ready to take.

The bilateral meeting, held on the opening day of the six-nation talks here on the North Korean nuclear crisis, came as Hill sent several signals that the United States would take a more flexible negotiating line. In a statement during the opening session of the talks, he said the United States recognized the sovereignty of the North Korean government as "a matter of fact" and offered assurances that the Bush administration did not plan to launch a military attack against the country.

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