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U.S. Is Willing to Listen to N. Korea

Dismantling nuclear weapons program is priority. But the Bush administration does not want to appear to be appeasing regime.

October 25, 2002|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

CABO SAN LUCAS, Mexico -- The Bush administration hasn't cut off contact with North Korea, but the only subject Washington wants to discuss is an immediate, verifiable dismantling of the Communist regime's nuclear weapons program, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

"I'm not ruling out direct contact or direct communication with the North Koreans," said the official, adding that the diplomatic channel from the North's mission at the United Nations to the State Department is still open.

"If they call us, we'll listen, and I hope vice versa -- but that's not negotiating," the official said. The official, who was traveling here with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, requested anonymity based on State Department protocol.

The distinction between "negotiating with" and "listening to" the North Koreans may seem obscure, but it is crucial to the Bush administration's diplomatic dance.

U.S. policymakers are in a political quandary, Asian security experts say, because they have long blasted the Clinton administration for "appeasing" what they see as a dangerous rogue state by, in effect, paying North Korea not to misbehave and by appearing to pay for talks with aid packages timed around negotiating sessions.

But now the Bush administration, facing anxious Asian allies and unpalatable military options against North Korea, will probably have to offer something to persuade the regime's leader, Kim Jong Il, to abandon his nuclear aspiration, analysts said.

Finding a face-saving solution could be thorny.

Making matters more difficult, China, the country that has perhaps the most leverage over North Korea, appears to be urging the U.S. to have direct talks with Kim's regime based on the Clinton administration's 1994 agreement that North Korean officials have told U.S. diplomats is now nullified. Under that pact, the North promised to freeze its nuclear weapons program in exchange for a 20-year supply of fuel oil and the construction of two nuclear power plants.

However, the Bush administration is publicly committed to the basic principle that bad behavior should not be rewarded with U.S. policies of engagement.

It has no intention of trusting a regime that Washington says has violated five written agreements aimed at keeping the Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. "We bought that horse one time before," the official said.

Moreover, for political reasons, the Bush administration must clearly differentiate its approach from that of the previous administration, experts said.

For the Bush camp, "the fourth element of the 'axis of evil' is the Clinton administration," Kurt Campbell, who was charged with Asian affairs at the Pentagon under Clinton, quipped earlier this week.

Campbell and other security experts said the Bush team will have to find some face-saving way to deal with the North without opening itself up to charges of appeasement or hypocrisy.

"It would be easy to attack the administration for lack of consistency" over threats to invade nuclear aspirant Iraq if it then takes a soft line on North Korea, Campbell said. "But the consequences of that are to lead the administration down the road of less diplomacy and more brinkmanship, which is not in our [national] interest."

The Bush administration had no preconditions for improving relations with North Korea before it discovered evidence of the secret uranium program last summer, the senior official said. Now the U.S. has demanded a rollback of that program as a precondition of further dealings.

North Korea said today that it would make a deal with the U.S. if it gets a "nonaggression treaty." The state-run news agency KCNA quoted an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying that the U.S. must recognize the North's sovereignty and assure it of nonaggression.

Powell, meeting Thursday with fellow foreign ministers at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering at the Mexican resort town of Cabo San Lucas, was urging North Korea's neighbors to pressure Kim to roll back its nuclear program.

Powell met with South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. Another senior State Department official said the two agreed that "this is a very serious matter" that should be resolved peacefully and that "the ball is in the North Koreans' court." However, Chinese officials reportedly have been telling the administration that little progress can be made without direct talks with North Korea.

And on Thursday, a senior Chinese official repeated Beijing's position that the Korean peninsula should remain nonnuclear, but went on to say that the nonproliferation agreements signed in 1993 and 1994, including the Agreed Framework, "have not come easily, and these agreements should continue to be followed."

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