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Bush Praises North Korea's Entry in Talks

The president stresses the common goal of ending Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear arms.

August 02, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Friday hailed North Korea's agreement to join six-nation talks aimed at curbing its nuclear aspirations, and he reminded Kim Jong Il that Pyongyang would receive an array of international assistance, including from the U.S., if it ended its nuclear development program.

"In the past it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this," Bush said. "Now we'll have other parties who have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula" and who are united by a common goal: "convincing Mr. Kim Jong Il to change his attitude about nuclear weaponry."

A White House official later pointedly left open the probability of bilateral talks between U.S. and North Korean officials taking place during the planned multiparty discussions.

Pyongyang's agreement to enter the talks -- and Washington's willingness to countenance direct U.S.-North Korean discussions -- amounted to a compromise by both sides. The procedural breakthrough has raised hopes that a negotiated settlement may yet be possible in a dispute that has raised the specter of war on the Korean peninsula, where about 37,000 U.S. troops are defending South Korea.

Until this week, Pyongyang had insisted on negotiating only with Washington. But Bush would not budge from his stance that any talks must include China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.

Bush has insisted that a nuclear-free Korean peninsula could be achieved through diplomatic means -- in the face of criticism that he was being inconsistent by using force to disarm Iraq while insisting on negotiating the disarmament of North Korea. North Korea is believed to have at least two nuclear bombs and recently told the U.S. it had finished reprocessing enough spent plutonium fuel rods to manufacture several more.

The president spoke about what he called "positive developments" at the end of a Cabinet meeting on Friday morning. He is to depart today for his annual August work-vacation at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, after undergoing his yearly physical.

Bush told reporters during a brief photo-op in the White House Cabinet Room that he insisted on multilateral negotiations "so that there is more than one voice speaking to Mr. Kim Jong Il."

Bush also said he felt "upbeat about the fact that others are assuming responsibility for peace besides the United States of America."

In Pyongyang, a foreign ministry spokesman told the state-run Korean Central News Agency that his country agreed to the multilateral talks after Washington indicated that the two sides could meet separately during the multiparty talks, Associated Press reported.

"Some time ago the U.S. informed [the Democratic People's Republic of Korea] through a third party that the DPRK-U.S. bilateral talks may be held within the framework of multilateral talks," KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying. The spokesman said that it was North Korea's idea to engage in six-party talks.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan did not directly confirm that report but acknowledged: "There is always the opportunity during these meetings for North Korea or any other party to talk directly to another party while these meetings are going on."

McClellan said the details and timing for the talks were "being worked out with our friends and allies in the region."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that the North Koreans had invited U.S. officials to meet them in New York on Thursday to formally deliver the news that they agreed to multilateral talks. North Korea's only diplomatic mission in the U.S. is at the United Nations.

Boucher indicated that North Korea's desire for some sort of nonaggression guarantee from the United States would be one topic of discussion at the upcoming talks.

"I guess we understand that the chief concern that they want to talk about is security concerns," Boucher said.

"We'll hear what they have to say. And there may be ways to find to communicate ... our position to the North Koreans." The United States, "has made clear ... that we have no intention of invading North Korea," he said.

At the White House, one senior administration official said of the U.S.-North Korea contact: "It's the New York channel. It's one of their persons at the North Korea mission at the U.N. Occasionally we will talk to that person, in person, on the phone, or via fax."

In north Asia, North Korea's neighbors reacted to the news of talks with guarded optimism. "Perhaps North Korea is beginning to ease a little bit," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also welcomed the "good prospect of early talks" and he commended "the recent efforts by the government of China, as well as other countries, in overcoming the current impasse," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said.

At the White House, Bush answered with a terse "yes" when asked if his offer of assistance to North Korea still stood.

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