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U.S. Begins Diplomatic Offensive on North Korea

The White House asks nations in the region to help stop the nuclear program. China is key.

October 19, 2002|Sonni Efron, Henry Chu and Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is trying to enlist North Korea's four key neighbors -- China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- in a campaign to persuade Kim Jong Il to relinquish his nuclear weapons programs, officials and analysts said Friday.

But while the administration is emphasizing its desire to solve the crisis with diplomacy, its efforts could be complicated if South Korean and Japanese leaders opt to continue their strategy of engaging the isolated regime of Kim, North Korea's leader.

China's cooperation is seen as key, since it is believed to have more leverage over North Korea than any other nation, analysts said.

China is the leading supplier of cheap or free food and fuel for its impoverished neighbor. It is also North Korea's main trading partner, one of its only socialist allies and the unhappy host of a growing stream of North Korean refugees.

Two U.S. officials held talks with officials in Beijing on Friday, but neither country disclosed the names of the officials involved or the results.

"We think the Chinese government shares our concern about the possible introduction of nuclear weapons into the Korean peninsula," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We hope to proceed on the basis of the concerns, and we will continue our consultations with China." He called the talks "useful and productive."

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Zhang Qiyue, told the official New China News Agency that the government believes that "the nuclear issue in [North Korea] should be solved through peaceful means, through dialogues and consultations."

Meanwhile, U.S. officials refused to confirm or deny reports that Pakistan -- now a key ally in the American war on terrorism -- probably provided uranium enrichment technology to North Korea through the 1990s in exchange for missiles.

Former U.S. officials and defense analysts said that although Pakistan was a leading suspect, rogue officials or black marketeers in Russia or China also might have provided nuclear technology to the North Koreans.

All countries emphatically denied the charge. There is some evidence that China helped Pakistan obtain its nuclear technology, making the complex nuclear-proliferation blame game murkier still.

Administration officials carefully avoided pointing the finger at any of the three countries, mindful that the United States now needs the cooperation of all of them in its efforts to disarm both North Korea and Iraq.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer dodged questions about which countries might have helped North Korea's uranium enrichment program, saying it was not in the interests of the North's major trading partners to help the regime develop nuclear weapons.

"These countries want good and improved relations with the United States, and they have no interest in a 'nuclearized' North Korea," Fleischer said.

Beijing has long said it opposes a nuclear-armed North Korea, which could cause South Korea and Japan to rethink their nonnuclear stances, trigger an arms race and upset the geopolitical stability of Asia.

Thus, analysts were relatively optimistic that Undersecretary of State John Bolton and Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, who arrived in Beijing on Thursday for a previously scheduled visit, would receive a sympathetic hearing.

The visit by Bolton and Kelly was originally intended to finalize preparations for Chinese President Jiang Zemin's three-day tour of the U.S. next week.

Bolton was to continue on to Moscow for talks with Russian officials, while Kelly was heading for Japan and South Korea.

North Korea's surprise confession to the U.S. this month that it has a uranium-based nuclear weapons program is now expected to be a major topic of discussion during Jiang's one-day visit to President Bush's ranch near Crawford, Texas, on Oct. 25.

The question is how much leverage China has over North Korea -- and how much it will be willing to exert.

The two Communist nations have enjoyed close ties for half a century, a relationship they liken to that of "lips and teeth." But differences have grown more stark over the last decade as China continued to implement market-oriented reforms while North Korea remained mired in its Marxist policies.

As China's economy becomes more integrated with the rest of the world, and as its leaders pursue a higher profile in international diplomacy, Beijing has found itself putting greater emphasis on its ties with countries such as the U.S., Japan and South Korea.

Yet in recent years, Chinese officials have complained privately to U.S. diplomats that Beijing has limited influence on the eccentric North Korean leader.

"The perception of most Chinese people [toward North Korea] has really changed," said Zhu Feng, an international relations scholar at Beijing University. "Our neighbor is frequently causing us headaches."

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