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In Shift, Bush Open to Pledge for N. Korea

In Asia, president holds to no-treaty stance but says he'd sign a promise to not attack if the North took steps to end its nuclear arms effort.

October 20, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — President Bush on Sunday took his most conciliatory step yet in his administration's campaign to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program, saying he would consider signing a deal promising not to attack the isolationist country as long as the guarantee was not a formal treaty.

The president's remarks appeared to be a concession to allies, particularly South Korea and China, who have been urging the U.S. to offer a concrete proposal to restart stalemated disarmament talks.

North Korea has insisted that it would not renounce its nuclear weapons capability unless the United States abandoned its "hostile intent," and has demanded a written nonaggression treaty. Bush has said he has no intention of invading North Korea, but has resisted putting security assurances into writing.

"We will not have a treaty.... That's off the table," Bush said after meeting with the Thai prime minister on the eve of the annual summit of Asian-Pacific leaders. "Perhaps there are other ways we can look at to say exactly what I said publicly on paper, with our partners' consent."

U.S. officials said Bush would only agree to a multi-country security pledge, but it is not clear how receptive North Korea would be to such an idea. Pyongyang has insisted it would accept only a bilateral nonaggression treaty with the United States.

With North Korea refusing to come back to the bargaining table, the Bush administration has been under growing pressure from its Asian allies to offer North Korea something more positive than a spoken pledge. South Korean diplomats have tried indirectly to let it be known that President Roh Moo Hyun, whose domestic political position is precarious, needs to show positive movement on the North Korean problem, especially now that he has committed himself to the politically unpopular step of sending South Korean troops to Iraq.

Bush and Roh met over breakfast today. Before the talks, Bush said "good progress" was being made on the North Korea issue. Roh said he appreciated Bush's efforts, adding, "This issue is very critical."

Like the South Koreans, Chinese diplomats have hinted that the U.S. needs to show more flexibility toward North Korea. The Bush administration feels that China is vital to any solution of the North Korea nuclear crisis -- and China has opposed sanctioning North Korea in the U.N. Security Council.

Some administration officials have argued privately that Washington must make every effort to cooperate with China now if it expects China's help in enforcing a nonproliferation strategy against North Korea later should negotiations fail.


Regional Diplomacy

Bush discussed options for a security agreement Sunday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who convened the first six-party meeting of regional allies to address the North Korean nuclear crisis in August in Beijing and is considered influential with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. In addition to North Korea, China and the U.S., the six-party group includes South Korea, Japan and Russia. But Chinese negotiators have since been having trouble luring North Korea back to the bargaining table.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," said that while the U.S. is "not interested ... in a treaty or in a nonaggression pact," Bush "is anxious to move forward within that six-party framework ... to find ways to provide North Korea the kind of security assurance they're looking for."

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it is not clear what form security assurances might take, but said it would likely be an "agreement with a small 'a.' " By contrast, treaties have a higher stature in international law and require ratification by the U.S. Senate.

Powell, asked on TV if the deal might be a simple written statement that the U.S., Russia, China, Japan and South Korea would not invade North Korea, said: "That's certainly one model that can be looked at."

A second administration official said the proposed agreement could be signed before a complete dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program, as long as the country could demonstrate "verifiable progress."

"We're looking to come up with security assurances within a six-party context so that any moves on our part would be conditional on verifiable progress on their part," the official said. "We're not saying everything has to be done before we will do anything. In fact, we're saying the opposite."

Previously, the administration has taken a harder line, saying no concessions would be made to North Korea until it dismantled its nuclear program.

The second administration official said the Chinese president expressed interest in the idea, and the United States was hopeful Hu would move to hold another round of six-party talks with the North Koreans to discuss it, perhaps before the end of the year.

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