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U.S. Is Concerned Its North Korea Overture Got Lost

September 05, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — American diplomats made a peaceful overture to North Korea in last week's talks in Beijing, but are now concerned that the North Korean officials might not have gotten the message, a senior State Department official said Thursday.

The United States is willing to talk about steps toward peace before North Korea concludes the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of its nuclear weapons program, although that is the final goal, two Bush administration officials said. But such a step-by-step approach does not change the administration's position that there will be "no down payments" for North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons program it had promised not to pursue, they said.

The State Department official called the six-nation talks "a good beginning" toward persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But he added, "I am disappointed because their presentations were quite pre-scripted. They seemed to have little to do with what we were saying, or what others were saying."

He said the administration takes very seriously the North Koreans' threat to test a nuclear weapon but hopes Pyongyang will refrain from provocations.

"We're going to give discussions a real chance, and a lot depends on North Korea's behavior," National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said.

Since the talks ended last Friday, U.S. officials have said that some media accounts differ from what was said at the negotiating table during the meetings involving North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan and the United States.

"We did not say, as press reports and North Korea said, that North Korea had to do everything before we would do anything," a senior administration official said. "We made it very clear we're prepared for step-by-step sequencing."

North Korea released a different version of events. It accused "unsavory elements" in the West of spreading "weird misinformation" about the talks. In a statement Wednesday from the official Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang claimed that the U.S. would discuss security assurances and economic cooperation with North Korea only if the regime first eliminates its nuclear weapons program.

Washington is demanding that Pyongyang "drop its gun first while [the United States] is still leveling its gun" at North Korea, the statement said.

Officials said the five other nations at the talks demanded an end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang might now feel isolated, U.S. officials said, hinting that recent Chinese comments suggesting that the Bush administration was being too rigid might be aimed at bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table.

A high-ranking South Korean official concurred that North Korea has grown increasingly isolated in its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

"Even China and Russia, who have supported North Korea in the past, were not sympathetic to North Korea's position at this time," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The North Korean delegates seemed to feel they were having difficulty defending their position. All five remaining countries said that North Korea should give up its nuclear weapons."

The senior Chinese negotiator, Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, said Monday that "America's policy towards [North Korea] ... is a main problem we are facing."

But the South Korean official agreed with the U.S. assessment that the Chinese, as hosts of the talks, were posturing to keep the North from quitting the negotiating process. The official also said he believed that North Korea, despite its blustery comments, would participate in another round of talks in October.

The North Koreans "said it was a useless meeting, but they didn't say they would not come back. North Korea is very clever at changing their statements as time goes by when it is in their interest," the South Korean official said.

The United States, Australia and other nations that are part of the "Proliferation Security Initiative" plan to go ahead with exercises this month in the Coral Sea northeast of Australia to simulate interdiction of a ship suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials insist that the exercise is not aimed at North Korea, but Pyongyang has warned that any attempt to interfere with its trade would be considered an act of war.

Administration officials say that cracking down on North Korean drug-smuggling, counterfeiting and missile sales to "rogue states" would dry up Pyongyang's hard currency and drive it to the negotiating table.

Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.

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