In diplomatic talks last week, North Korea offered to get rid of its nuclear weapons and even to dismantle its broader nuclear program, senior U.S. officials said Monday, but only if the United States offered “something considerable in return.”
The officials’ accounts were the first public confirmation that at the talks in Beijing, North Korea directly addressed the Bush administration’s concerns about its efforts to build nuclear arms and talked about what it would demand to change its policies.
Although the officials suggested that the talks offered hope of some progress, the North Korean government has a long history of making proposals to ease rising tensions, then attaching unrealistic demands.
The officials said that they thought North Korea was making an opening demand and that there is a realistic prospect of further negotiations.
Reports from Seoul said the North was seeking security guarantees and normalized political and economic relations with the U.S. in exchange for abandoning its nuclear program and missile exports. The exports are an important source of hard currency for the impoverished country.
In the past, according to Senate testimony by Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage, North Korea has insisted not only on a written guarantee of peaceful ties with the U.S. but also on a formal treaty confirmed by the Senate -- an idea the administration has rejected.
North Korea, which President Bush has labeled a member of an “axis of evil,” is widely thought to fear a military threat from the U.S.
In his disclosure of the apparent progress Monday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also offered a strong defense of the State Department’s role in the Bush administration’s campaign to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program.
The department has clashed with hard-liners in the Pentagon who are deeply skeptical that anything can be accomplished in talks with the government in Pyongyang. Some at the State Department believe a series of anonymous leaks by Pentagon officials has been aimed at torpedoing any progress with North Korea.
Powell dismissed any suggestion that the State Department has withheld information from the Pentagon. This was a response to complaints from senior Defense Department officials that members of Powell’s team did not inform them that North Korea had told the State Department in March that it had begun reprocessing plutonium, a crucial step in creating a nuclear weapon. “That’s nonsense,” Powell said of the complaints.
“Over a period of time, the North Koreans have made different statements about reprocessing and whether they are or are not reprocessing. And we always examine those statements, and we try to determine the validity of those statements.”
Powell said U.S. intelligence agencies cannot confirm the North Korean statements made over a period of time regarding its reprocessing activity. But, he said, “what we were told on the 31st [of March] was shared within the administration.”
“I’m not sure if everybody in the administration got it, but it isn’t relevant because it didn’t seem to be anything that was terribly new or different from what we have been told on a regular basis over the last several months,” he added.
A senior administration official said later that the Pentagon complaints were coming from “second- and third-level people who don’t get the readout on these things.” His comment reflected efforts at the State Department to minimize the running dispute with the Pentagon on how best to deal with the North Koreans.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. officials were still trying to parse what North Korea was offering.
Reflecting the confusion that often stems from diplomatic bargaining with North Korea, he said “they say so many contradictory things.”
Powell said of the North Korean offer: “They did put forward a plan that would ultimately deal with their nuclear capability and their missile activities, but they, of course, expect something considerable in return.”
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said later that the North Koreans had raised the possibility of getting rid of their nuclear weapons and that “they might ... stop their missile exports.”
And, he added, “they said they might get rid of all their nuclear programs.”
According to South Korean media reports, the proposal offers a step-by-step approach to resolving a standoff, under which Pyongyang would take initial measures such as opening its nuclear programs to inspection in return for countermeasures such as the resumption of fuel-oil deliveries by the U.S.
The proposal apparently has been warmly received not only by China but also by South Korea and Japan.
The Beijing talks, in which Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly led the U.S. side, were completed Friday. During the talks, it was disclosed last week, North Korea claimed for the first time to have nuclear arms and to have almost finished reprocessing enough plutonium for many more bombs, Bush administration sources have said.
But the veracity of the North Korean statements remained unclear.
Regardless of the specifics of the discussions, they were considered a breakthrough in the standoff that has marked U.S.-North Korean relations since the Pyongyang government disclosed in October that, contradictory to assurances it had given for nearly a decade, it was pursuing the development of a nuclear arsenal.
The talks brought together officials from the United States, North Korea and China.
The North Koreans had originally objected to the presence of the Chinese delegation. Within the Bush administration, the Chinese presence was seen as a positive development.
The North Koreans rely on China for economic support. As a result, China’s pressure on them to retreat from full pursuit of nuclear arms carries special weight, and U.S. officials were pleased that China appeared to be exerting its leverage.
Staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.