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N. Korea's Nuclear Issue
US Tries New Approach in Talks with N. Korea
By Jim Yardley & David E. Sanger
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan, center, and his delegation took part in the six-party talks on Tuesday on North Korea's nuclear program. Pool photo by Elizabeth Dalziel

BEIJING, July 26, 2005 — The Bush administration appeared to show signs of new flexibility in talks with North Korea on Tuesday, with American and North Korean diplomats meeting here at length to discuss the delicate question of how aid or energy assistance may be provided to the North as it begins the process of dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

Delegations from the two countries met alone here for the second straight day to discuss a proposal the administration put forward in June 2004 before North Korea walked away from talks. Christopher R. Hill, who is leading the American delegation, told reporters that the "businesslike" meeting again raised the prospect of a three-month "freeze" period on North Korea's nuclear activity, followed by a rapid dismantlement of their nuclear plants. In return, the aid spigot from South Korea and other neighbors would begin to open wider.

In Washington, a senior administration official said the approach to the North was loosely patterned on the administration's dealings with Libya in 2003. That negotiation led to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's decision to give up all the central elements of his nuclear program. But North Korea's nuclear infrastructure is far older, far more advanced and far better hidden, and the official said that at this point the United States was simply trying to "lay the groundwork" for a disarmament deal that many in Washington say Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, is unwilling to make.

Mr. Hill declined to give any specifics of the response given by the North Korean vice foreign minister, Kim Kye Gwan. "They talked about the June proposal," Mr. Hill said, according to the Kyodo News Agency of Japan. "They talked about their concern about the sequencing of the proposal and the importance they attach to sequencing, where they don't want to have obligations ahead of other people's obligations."

During Mr. Bush's first term, Condoleezza Rice, now the secretary of state, was highly critical of President Bill Clinton for signing a deal that front-loaded the benefits to North Korea while putting off the North's disarmament.

Senior American officials say that is still the administration's position, but they say that Mr. Hill has been given more leeway than his predecessor, James A. Kelly, about what tack to take with the North Koreans, including one-on-one meetings.

Mr. Hill seemed to suggest that the United States would be amenable to a step-by-step process under which North Korean concessions were met by rewards from the United States and other participants in the six-nation talks, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Mr. Hill said that when North Korea "makes the decision to dismantle its nuclear program permanently, fully, verifiably," the United States and other participants in the talks would take "corresponding measures."

He described the approach as "words for words and actions for actions."

But the word "verifiably" may be a stumbling point, senior administration officials said, just as it was in decades of arms talks with the former Soviet Union. The United States says it does not know where major elements of North Korea's two suspected nuclear programs are - meaning that it is bound to insist on the right to look almost anywhere in the country. It is a step that many in the administration say they do not believe North Korea is ready to take.

The bilateral meeting, held on the opening day of the six-nation talks here on the North Korean nuclear crisis, came as Mr. Hill sent several signals that the United States would take a more flexible negotiating line. In a statement during the opening session of the talks, he said the United States recognized the sovereignty of the North Korean government as "a matter of fact" and offered assurances that the Bush administration did not plan to launch a military attack against the country.

In his opening remarks, Kim Kye Gwan, the top North Korean negotiator, avoided the belligerent tone often adopted by his government in his opening statement. "Those directly involved should make a political and strategic decision to rid the threat of war from the Korean peninsula, and we are ready to do so," he said. "I hope the U.S. and other nations are ready to do the same."

This fourth round of talks comes after North Korea broke off negotiations 13 months ago without publicly responding to the American proposal. The new talks have assumed an air of urgency because of American concerns that North Korea has rapidly expanded its nuclear arsenal. Nuclear experts worry that the North may have enough fuel to make eight or more nuclear bombs.

The previous three rounds of talks in Beijing ended without a breakthrough, and the legitimacy of the six-nation negotiating structure could collapse if this round ends in a stalemate. The Bush administration has already suggested that it might invoke severe economic penalties if this round failed to produce results.

In a side issue, Japan continued to insist that North Korea's past abduction of Japanese citizens should also be included in the talks, a position rejected by North Korea and discouraged by South Korea.

At a briefing after the close of the day's meetings, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that another plenary session would be held Wednesday and that the envoys from each country might also hold a joint meeting. The spokesman, Qin Gang, said that all the participants held bilateral meetings on Tuesday and that the session between the United States and North Korea was part of a broader warming trend in relations.

"Recently, the atmosphere has improved" between the United States and North Korea, Mr. Qin said.

The Chinese, who have served as host for each round of talks, have staked much of their diplomatic prestige on achieving a breakthrough. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing asserted in his opening statement that the six-nation process was the only "realistic, viable course" for peacefully resolving the nuclear standoff, according to Chinese state media. But he also urged that the participating countries adopt a gradual approach to negotiations.

"These talks may run into all sorts of difficulties and setbacks," he said. "If you climb up one crag at a time, you can always ascend a mountain."

Jim Yardley reported from Beijing for this article, and David E. Sanger from Washington. Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Beijing.






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