White House Dismisses Idea Of Direct Talks With North Korea

The United States yesterday swiftly rejected a reported demand from North Korea that it conduct one-on-one talks with the reclusive communist state as a price for restarting negotiations on dismantling its nuclear programs.

U.S. officials held firm to their position that the talks must include Pyongyang's neighbors as they intensified diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to return to the bargaining table.

"It's not an issue between North Korea and the United States," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "It's a regional issue."

The request for direct talks, made by a senior member of North Korea's U.N. delegation in an interview with a South Korean newspaper, suggested Pyongyang remains willing to discuss scrapping its untested nuclear arsenal under the right terms, despite its "indefinite" withdrawal Thursday from the six-nation talks hosted by China.

U.S. officials have met with North Korean officials on the sidelines of the six-nation sessions for discussions lasting more than two hours, but North Korea's request for direct talks appears to be aimed at trying to split the fragile unity of its bargaining partners. In thepast, China and South Korea have been sympathetic to North Korea's claims that the United States has not bargained in good faith.

While U.S. officials are still debating how to respond, "everyone agrees that now is the time to turn up the pressure on China and South Korea," a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Vice President Cheney met yesterday with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon in a previously scheduled meeting and he questioned Ban on the budding economic relations between North and South Korea, according to a South Korean official who attended the meeting. Ban told Cheney that South Korea is reviewing a North Korean request for 500,000 tons of fertilizer and Cheney did not request that trade between the countries be halted, the official added.

Throughout the two years of talks, North Korea has sought to win upfront, direct benefits from the United States as a condition for agreeing to end its nuclear programs. Despite pleas from South Korea, the Bush administration has refused even symbolic gestures until North Korea gives up its programs and its claims are verified by U.S. intelligence.

The White House has supported efforts by its allies to provide energy assistance if North Korea declares it will end its programs. Once North Korea's claims have been verified, the administration has indicated, it would take other steps, such as joining in a multilateral guarantee of North Korea's security, that could ultimately result in a restoration of relations. But U.S. officials have been purposely vague about the details.

Now, in the wake of North Korea's declaration that it possesses nuclear weapons, pressure may mount on the United States to demonstrate greater flexibility in the talks. U.S. officials have said they will not modify their offer, presented last June, until North Korea formally makes a counteroffer.

Bush administration officials say they will not conduct bilateral negotiations because they do not want to repeat the experience of the Clinton administration. In 1994, President Bill Clinton struck a deal with North Korea that froze its nuclear programs, but in 2002, President Bush accused North Korea of violating it.

The demand for a direct dialogue with the United States represents a return to the negotiating position that North Korea staked out before China persuaded it to join the multilateral talks that began in August 2003. The new statement from North Korea appeared to bolster the assessment of many officials in the region that Pyongyang's surprise announcement Thursday was a gambit to win additional economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington and its allies.

"We will return to the six-nation talks when we see a reason to do so and the conditions are ripe," Han Sung Ryol, deputy chief of Pyongyang's U.N. mission, told Seoul's Hankyoreh newspaper Thursday in New York. "If the United States moves to have direct dialogue with us, we can take that as a signal that the United States is changing its hostile policy toward us."

"We have no other option but to regard the United States' refusal to have direct dialogue with us as an intention not to recognize us and to eliminate our system," Han was also quoted as saying.

But in a subsequent interview, Han appeared to backtrack, telling Associated Press Television News, "No, we do not ask for bilateral talks." He said the key issue for North Korea is whether Washington plans to attack North Korea.

Bush and other U.S. officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to attack or invade North Korea. But three years ago Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and Iraq, a country the United States later invaded.

In his inaugural speech last month, Bush said he will push to eliminate tyranny around the world -- and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in her confirmation hearings that North Korea is an "outpost of tyranny." North Korea's statement declaring it will leave the talks linked the two remarks.

Asian officials conceded that the North's declaration seriously complicated the already stalled talks, and that disarming the North would be far more difficult. "There's no doubt that there are new questions about North Korea's intentions now," said an Asian diplomat.

Another Asian official said the predominant view in his government is that this is a negotiating ploy, particularly because North Korea's negotiating partners had made it clear Pyongyang needed to make a counteroffer to the U.S. proposal. But he said there is a minority view that North Korea will not give up its weapons and thus a change in tactics is necessary.

This official said the North Korean announcement might offer a silver lining, because it was clear the "six-party talks were getting a little stale" and a fresh approach was needed. Eight months have passed since the last meeting, and only three sessions have taken place, with little apparent progress.

Many in the region turned their attention to China, which enjoys leverage over North Korea because it supplies the country's feeble economy with critical food and fuel shipments. Until now, China has insisted it was not clear whether its communist ally had developed nuclear weapons.

Diplomats involved in the talks said China has been reluctant to pressure North Korea, instead offering incentives to Pyongyang to keep negotiating.

Pan reported from Beijing. Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tokyo contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company
By Glenn Kessler and Philip P. Pan Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page A15


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