WASHINGTON — After weeks of escalating tensions, a North Korean offer relayed through former President Jimmy Carter may provide "an opening" for resolving the standoff over the isolated Communist nation's nuclear program, a senior Clinton Administration official said Sunday.
"There may be an opening here" to defuse the crisis, Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci said after Carter briefed top Administration officials on his talks in North Korea last week with Kim Il Sung, the nation's aging leader. Carter brought with him an offer from North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in return for a resumption of high-level discussions with the United States.
Emerging from the Sunday morning meeting at the White House, Carter said flatly, "I personally believe the crisis is over, and I personally believe Kim Il Sung wants to be sure that the crisis is over."
Carter said he expects that the high-level talks--which have been put on hold because of the North's refusal to allow full international inspection of its nuclear facilities--could resume shortly. "I believe . . . we've reached complete agreement between us (the United States and North Korea) on the major issues," he said. "The next step would be to confirm this officially, and I would hope very early a third round (of direct talks) would be held."
Again, Administration officials were somewhat more cautious about the prospect of resuming talks. Gallucci said the Administration first has to confirm through diplomatic channels that North Korea's freeze offer meets the precise conditions President Clinton has set for a resumption of discussions. But Gallucci said the Administration will move quickly to follow up on the opportunity that Carter's visit created.
"It may well be that President Carter has brought back something upon which we can build and defuse the situation," Gallucci said.
Carter met for more than two hours at the White House with Gallucci, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and other officials. During the meeting, he spoke for half an hour on the phone with Clinton, who was spending the weekend at Camp David.
In an interview with CNN later Sunday afternoon, Carter said he had initiated the trip to the Korean peninsula out of fear that "an international confrontation (was) . . . inevitable" in the showdown prompted by U.S. fears that North Korea has been secretly developing nuclear weapons.
Carter said he moved to accept a longstanding invitation to visit North Korea after Gallucci briefed him about the crisis two weeks ago. After the briefing, Carter said, he concluded that the Administration had no avenue for "communication with the only person in North Korea (Kim Il Sung) who could change the course of events." Carter said he scheduled the trip only after receiving approval from Clinton, who was traveling in Europe commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-day.
While insisting in the interview that he did not mean to criticize Clinton's policies, Carter nonetheless continued to criticize the Administration's efforts to secure sanctions against North Korea at the United Nations. "I felt then and now that North Korea was not likely to (respond) to threats or international pressure or embarrassment or condemnation--that the alternative had to be something that would let them and us save face, to let us come out of this in a peaceful way," he said.
Carter added that sanctions would have a "relatively insignificant" tangible impact on North Korea but "would have been, I think, the precipitation for possible war" by branding the North "as a criminal society." The United States has been discussing an escalating series of international sanctions that would begin with a ban on the export and import of arms and an end to U.N. technical assistance and could potentially build to significant economic measures.
Carter caused a diplomatic dust-up last week in North Korea when he said the United States was willing to suspend its pursuit of sanctions while it assessed the North Korean offer of a freeze; Clinton quickly and forcefully contradicted him Friday, insisting that efforts to impose sanctions would continue until an agreement is reached.
But Sunday, after the meeting at the White House, Carter reiterated his insistence that his discussions with North Korea's Kim had eliminated the need for the United States to continue pursuing sanctions. Reaffirming Clinton's Friday statement, however, Administration officials again dismissed Carter's remarks. Instead, they said they would continue to pursue sanctions until they had reached a verifiable agreement with North Korea to freeze operations at its nuclear plant in Yongbyon that could contribute to the manufacture of a nuclear weapon.