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N. Korea Sends Mixed Messages

Pyongyang threatens to test a nuclear weapon, but all sides at summit plan to meet again.

August 29, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

BEIJING — A six-nation meeting to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program ended here today on a deeply contradictory note, with North Korean officials having threatened once more to test a nuclear device but all sides indicating that they planned to meet again to work toward a resolution of the crisis.

The final round of the three-day meetings ended around noon with a bizarre mix of belligerency and cooperation in the air. The North Koreans put out mixed messages through their official news agency, offering a set of proposed solutions but also accusing the United States of putting future talks in jeopardy by exhibiting a hostile attitude.

Diplomats said a joint communique was likely to be released later today. Several delegates said it would express a joint intention to meet again, though probably without a specific date. There was no immediate comment from the American delegation as the talks ended. Earlier, officials in the U.S. described them as positive.

North Korean officials announced Thursday that their country was prepared to test a nuclear weapon, dismaying their Chinese hosts and representatives of the other four nations here -- Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States -- that hope to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programs, U.S. officials said.

At the same time, though, negotiators said North Korea had expressed a willingness to abandon its nuclear weapons program and submit to verification inspections in return for a package of aid and energy assistance, diplomatic relations and a formal guarantee that it would not come under attack. The United States has said such offers amount to unacceptable nuclear blackmail and has instead insisted that North Korea drop the program as a precondition for the help it seeks.

U.S. officials privately confirmed that the North Koreans had indicated a willingness to consider disarming if the other five parties agreed to their conditions. But if the demands are not met, the North threatens to test its nuclear weapons.

"They claim to have them, and have the means of delivering them, and are prepared to test," one official said.

U.S. officials downplayed the North Korean posture as "nothing new," saying the remarks were a replay of threats Pyongyang has made in the past. In April, a North Korean official told Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly that Pyongyang had nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and that it might export or test them -- or consider disarming them, depending on U.S. actions.

"We have no way of knowing," a Bush administration official said. The talks so far have shed no light on whether North Korea means to make good on its threats or is engaged in brinkmanship aimed at extracting maximum concessions from the U.S. Either way, "it doesn't change our policy; it doesn't change our approach," he said.

The real test will be whether North Korea agrees to attend a second round of talks, perhaps in October. Such an agreement would probably be hailed by all sides as a sign of progress. Negotiators involved in the talks have generally characterized them as slow but useful.

South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo Hyuck told journalists after the summit ended today that all six nations agreed to meet again, although no formal date was set. China's Central Television said the talks would take place within two months, but there was no immediate verification of this from other countries.

In Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is vacationing at his ranch, White House Deputy Press Secretary Claire Buchan said Thursday, "The assessment from our team who was on the ground in Beijing in these discussions is that this is a positive session."

And, she added, "we are receiving excellent cooperation from our partners."

State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker and Buchan both declined to confirm the North Korean comments.

But another official said the North Koreans had repeated their demands for a legally binding nonaggression treaty with the United States, a normalization of diplomatic relations and compensation for the electricity North Korea had lost by shutting down a plutonium reactor under a 1992 deal, in which the North had promised to freeze all nuclear activity. North Korea's admission last October that it had a uranium-enrichment program that violated that pledge triggered the crisis that led to the current talks in Beijing.

"If they get back all the stuff that, frankly, they threw away, then they would allow inspections and eventual dismantlement" of the nuclear program, the official said. No timetable for relinquishing the nuclear program was offered.

North Korea also has continued to drop strong hints that it wants economic aid as a condition of giving up its nuclear weapons program, negotiators involved in the talks said. That is an approach that the White House has characterized as an unacceptable attempt at nuclear blackmail.

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