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N. Korea Agrees to 6-Way Talks

Russia says the regime has yielded to U.S. insistence that nuclear negotiations involve the nations most affected by the outcome.

August 01, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a breakthrough for the Bush administration, North Korea has apparently dropped a key demand and agreed to a U.S. proposal for six-nation talks about its nuclear weapons program, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday.

Boucher said the U.S. was "very encouraged by indications" from both the Russian and Chinese governments "that North Korea is accepting our proposals for multilateral talks."

Such talks would bring North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States together for the first time to discuss whether the Communist regime in Pyongyang might be willing to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for possible security guarantees, aid or other concessions.

Critics and supporters of the administration agreed that if the talks came to pass -- and did not instantly end in deadlock -- it would be a major victory for President Bush. The president has insisted, in the face of much criticism, that Pyongyang negotiate a settlement with all the countries most affected by its nuclear ambitions, which have sparked fears of an arms race or the export of plutonium to terrorists.

North Korea had steadfastly demanded to negotiate with the United States directly, and its apparent reversal came as a surprise. Just Monday, U.S. and South Korean officials said that Chinese efforts to bring the North Koreans to the bargaining table had bogged down.

White House officials were cautious, however, because there was no direct confirmation from North Korea. "We remain hopeful that we will be able in the near future to confirm both format [meaning six parties] and date and place," an administration official said.

Boucher said the U.S. does not know whether Pyongyang, which is believed to have two nuclear bombs, is prepared to abandon its weapons program. "We'll just have to see when we get there what the North Koreans are prepared to do," he said.

Nor is it clear what Bush is prepared to do, noted former U.S. diplomat Morton I. Abramowitz. "The U.S. position has been, 'You have to give up all your programs and then we'll talk to you,' " Abramowitz said.

In the past, U.S. officials have spoken in vague terms of a "grand bargain" of incentives that might be offered to North Korea once it disarms. Boucher said Thursday that the U.S. would present its own ideas "about how North Korea can end its nuclear weapons programs in a verifiable and irreversible manner" but declined to offer specifics.

In April, when North Korean officials met with U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing, they made a still-secret proposal listing conditions under which North Korea might scrap its nuclear program, coupled with threats about what it would do if the U.S. refused to comply. A senior administration official described the proposal Monday as, "you give us all the things we've ever wanted, and we promise that someday we'll consider doing what you want."

At the time, administration officials said the proposal was unacceptable but might provide some basis for future negotiations.

But the North Koreans have made no commitment to give up their nuclear weapons program. "Frankly, it would help if they did make a real commitment," the senior official said.

Before news of North Korea's willingness to begin six-way talks broke Thursday, U.S. Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton delivered a scathing attack on the North Korean leader with whom the administration hopes to negotiate.

"Kim Jong Il seems to care more about enriching uranium than enriching his own people," Bolton said in a speech in South Korea. "While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps, with millions more mired in abject poverty.

"For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare," Bolton said, adding that a State Department report on human rights estimated that 400,000 people had died in North Korean prisons since 1972.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was the first to announce that Pyongyang had agreed to multilateral talks. But Chinese President Hu Jintao had told Bush in a telephone call Tuesday that he expected North Korea to agree to the six-party talks, the senior official said.

The talks are expected to take place "in the near future," the official said. "We're waiting to hear more from the Chinese, who are trying to organize this."

Abramowitz, co-author of a Council on Foreign Relations report on North Korea, speculated on why the first public announcement had come from the Russians and not from the Chinese, who have been doing most of the diplomatic heavy lifting. This "may indicate that the North Koreans see the Russians as more sympathetic than the Chinese," he said.

L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea expert at the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs, said it appeared that the North Koreans were attempting the familiar maneuver of pitting the Russians against the Chinese. "They perhaps correctly see the Chinese as moving closer to the U.S. position," Flake said.

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