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U.S. May Take North Korea Issue to U.N.

White House will decide within weeks whether to abandon the stalled six-party nuclear talks and go to the Security Council, an official says.

June 05, 2005|Mark Mazzetti and Paul Richter | Times Staff Writers

SINGAPORE — With frustration mounting over North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and refusal to return to the bargaining table, the Bush administration will decide within weeks whether to abandon the stalled six-party talks and take the issue to the U.N. Security Council, a senior U.S. defense official said today.

It has been nearly a year since delegates from North Korea, China, the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia met in Beijing to negotiate the dismantling of the North's nuclear program. Those talks bore little fruit, and since that time, Pyongyang has rejected repeated overtures for more.

Increasingly, the Bush administration believes that the one-year mark is an appropriate time to cut off North Korea's opportunity to return to the talks, the defense official said.

"We have the one-year anniversary, but moreover, we have an escalating downward spiral of threats by North Korea, and it appears to be marching to its own frustration drum," said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition his name not be published. "It's a very good time to be talking about [going to the United Nations], the June-July period.

"It's something we're giving increased study to, and probably will come to a decision over the next couple of weeks."

International concern over North Korea's nuclear activities has been mounting since 2002, when the Bush administration accused Pyongyang of cheating on a 1994 agreement to freeze its atomic weapons program. Shortly after that, the North withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and kicked out United Nations nuclear inspectors.

In February, the North declared it was a nuclear power, an event the official called a significant "mile marker" in the crisis. Since then, both Washington and Pyongyang have engaged in increasingly heated and often personal rhetoric that has dimmed any hope of a negotiated settlement.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is scheduled Friday to meet with President Bush for discussions that could prove crucial to how the two allies decide to proceed on the North Korea issue.

Taking the issue to the United Nations carries its own perils. China and Russia have veto power at the Security Council, giving both nations the ability to reject any tough sanctions the U.S. and other nations might seek.

Many policy analysts say it is unlikely that the U.N. would have any better luck than the participants in the six-party talks have had at convincing North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to abandon his weapons program.

North Korea had no immediate response to the remarks by the U.S. official, but in a newspaper commentary today, the communist nation repeated its demands that Washington drop its "hostile" policy toward Pyongyang.

"As long as the United States adheres to its anachronistic hostile policy toward [North Korea] ... a stumbling block in resolution of the nuclear problem cannot be removed," the North's state-run newspaper Minju Joson said in a commentary carried by the nation's official Korean Central News Agency.

Before any decision about whether to take the issue to the U.N. is made, the Bush administration is looking to China as its last hope for a breakthrough.

As North Korea's only substantial ally and main trading partner, China is thought to have significant influence, and the U.S. has praised Beijing for playing a key role in the negotiations.

At the same time, frustration has grown in Washington over China's refusal to use economic matters as leverage to pressure Pyongyang to return to the bargaining table.

Beijing's decision on whether to ratchet up pressure on North Korea will be key to the future of the U.S.-China relationship, officials say.

"We have consistently held out to the Chinese that if they want to find one subject, one area in which they can demonstrate real strategic partnership and strategic cooperation, it is on the North Korean issue," the senior defense official said. "It is a low-hanging fruit ready to be plucked."

During a speech in Singapore on Saturday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called on Beijing to apply more pressure on North Korea. He also criticized China's massive arms buildup, saying it threatened the balance of power in Asia.

China's defense spending is estimated to be at least $50 billion annually, third behind the United States ($400 billion a year) and Russia.

"Since no nation threatens China," Rumsfeld said Saturday, "one wonders, why this growing investment?"

Some analysts and former U.S. officials saw Rumsfeld's critique of China's militarization as part of the larger Bush administration effort to get Beijing to lean on North Korea.

"My immediate thought was that this was to pressure the Chinese" over North Korea, said Charles L. Pritchard, who was a special U.S. envoy to North Korea during Bush's first term.

But Pritchard, now a visiting fellow at Brookings Institution in Washington, said he doubted that it would help advance the talks and it could complicate upcoming visits with Chinese leaders.

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