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U.S. Works to Pressure North Korea Over Arms

Envoys will ask Tokyo, Moscow, London and Paris to persuade the Communist state to reverse course on its nuclear program.

October 20, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL — The U.S. plans no hard and fast response to North Korea's admission this month that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons. But the administration expects to exert maximum pressure through allies and intermediaries to persuade the isolated Communist state to reverse course, a senior American official said Saturday.

"This is a difficult and complex problem," Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly told reporters here after meeting with senior South Korean officials. "The easiest [solution] would be for North Korea to immediately and visibly dismantle this program."

Senior North Korean officials confirmed Oct. 5 that their country has been seeking to join the nuclear club -- according to the U.S., after Kelly confronted them in their capital, Pyongyang, with evidence of their uranium enrichment program. North Korea hasn't commented on the issue since the story broke Wednesday.

Kelly denied Saturday that North Korea had offered a formal package deal under which it would give up its weapons program if Washington agreed to forswear a first strike, sign a peace treaty and acknowledge the Pyongyang government.

But, he said, North Korea did suggest "when all of these wonderful things were done, that then we might be able to talk about their uranium enrichment program."

"That in my mind has it upside-down," he added.

Before receiving hard evidence of the North Korean weapons program, the U.S. was poised last summer to offer the North a "bold approach" of economic and diplomatic benefits, Kelly said. Then it shifted gears to confront the regime, he said.

At his meeting in Pyongyang, Kelly found the North Korean admission harsh and surprising, he said. He did not explain, however, why the administration waited several months to raise the issue with Pyongyang and nearly two weeks after the confirmation to inform the world.

Kelly and Undersecretary of State John Bolton are on a whirlwind tour of global capitals in a bid to get allies to use their leverage on North Korea to end research into, fuel enrichment for, and development and production of nuclear weapons.

Both men were in Beijing on Friday before splitting up. Kelly was scheduled to fly to Tokyo today after his South Korean visit, while Bolton was set to travel to Moscow, Paris and London before heading home.

Analysts say Washington is trying to gain agreement from those with influence on North Korea not to offer it any money or aid even as they urge it to comply. South Korean Unification Minister Jeong Se Hyun arrived in Pyongyang on Saturday for a long-scheduled three-day visit, while Japan is set to meet with North Korean leaders in Malaysia at the end of the month.

North Korea's admission appears to violate its pledge under the 1994 agreed framework to give up its plutonium weapons program in return for 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually and two light-water civilian nuclear reactors. Kelly declined to say whether the pact is now dead.

North Korea's disclosures have come at a bad time for the U.S. administration. They have diverted attention from Iraq, and the administration's desire to unseat Saddam Hussein, and put Washington on the defensive as to why Iraq merits unilateral action while North Korea, with potentially more menacing weapons, does not.

"It's pretty clear Washington was not expecting true confessions on this one and is now trying to figure how to respond without undermining its Iraq effort," said Ralph A. Cossa, executive director of the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic & International Studies.

The admission by Pyongyang has also brought unwelcome attention to the nuclear technology and know-how that Pakistan, China and Russia may have provided the North -- at a time when Washington has placed their future support in a war against Iraq well above any past misdeeds.

Leaders of all three countries have denied any involvement with Pyongyang, and Kelly refused to comment Saturday on their alleged links to North Korea, characterizing the issue as an "intelligence matter."

Washington and Seoul have had their differences over North Korea policy, with many hard-liners in the Bush administration dismissing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung as a pushover. Kelly, who appeared relaxed during his 25-minute news conference, expressed polite support for recent efforts by his hosts and neighboring Japan to engage the North, as well as for Pyongyang's nascent steps to open its economy and expand international contacts.

But he also said he disagreed with the interpretation provided by several South Korean officials that North Korea's nuclear confession was its way of coming clean and opening diplomatic channels.

"There are many ways to signal a forthcoming dialogue rather than that," Kelly said, especially since Pyongyang initially said it had no desire or need for dialogue, he added.

The best way for North Korea to resume communication, which broke off at the end of the Clinton administration, would be to end its violation of past agreements on limiting nuclear weapons, he said.

Analysts said Kelly's efforts to win Tokyo and Seoul over to the tougher U.S. position could prove difficult. South Korea and Japan have both experienced a warming in relations with the North in recent months.

"They're three bedfellows sharing the same bed with different dreams," said Lee Dong Bok, a university professor here.

"I think what Washington would like to see happen is to somehow keep the North Korea issue on hold until there's a new government in Seoul," Lee added. South Korea goes to the polls in December.

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