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Hopes Dim for 3-Way Talks With N. Korea

Times Staff Writers

Efforts to arrange talks among North Korea, China and the United States have bogged down, and negotiations may not be held any time soon, U.S. and South Korean officials said Monday.

“The consultation process between North Korea and China is not swift and is becoming a bit slower,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan told reporters in Seoul.

Yoon’s downbeat assessment was shared by Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, who was visiting Beijing for talks about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Bolton said he saw no progress to report on attempts to restart the three-way talks, which broke up inconclusively in April.

Bolton, who handles arms control and international security and is known as a Bush administration hard-liner, called on China to consider nondiplomatic measures to push North Korea toward dismantling its nuclear program.

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In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States would continue to press for the U.N. Security Council to take up the issue. The administration would like the world body to condemn North Korea for withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and declaring that it has reprocessed plutonium for nuclear weapons. But China, which has veto power at the council, has so far objected to such a resolution.

Echoing the argument President Bush used to try to persuade the United Nations to authorize the use of force in Iraq, Bolton said the council’s ability and willingness to tackle the North Korean problem would be a test of the institution.

“If it’s not able to pass that test,” he said, “it will have an impact not only on the North Korean situation, but on the council’s future role as well in other crises.”

However, Bolton rejected any analogy to the Iraq war, “because North Korea is not Iraq.”

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Monday’s news seemed a setback for Bush’s search for a peaceful way to get North Korea to abandon its quest for a nuclear arsenal, an ambition that many fear could trigger a nuclear arms race in East Asia.

But analysts said that if Pyongyang was responsible for scuttling the talks, its belligerence could anger China and thus work to U.S. advantage.

North Korea has been insisting on bilateral talks with the United States. The Bush administration, which sees the communist regime’s behavior as a regional threat, advocates talks that include South Korea, China, Japan and possibly Russia. But on the eve of Bolton’s trip to Asia, Washington signaled that it would be willing to hold talks with just North Korea and China if they were followed by multiparty negotiations.

Washington is trying “to make exquisitely clear to North Korea that there is no other way out, other than to give up the nuclear weapons,” said L. Gordon Flake, a Korea expert and head of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. “But even in pursuing that line, the administration is, I think, very cognizant that there is little hope that North Korea will actually comply.”

Washington’s strategy is to form a tight international coalition against North Korea so that any refusal to negotiate a disarmament deal would be seen as an affront to the world community, Flake said.

Bolton, who met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui and other high-ranking officials, said China had substantial leverage over North Korean behavior. According to North Korea scholars Victor D. Cha and David C. Kang, China supplies 70% to 90% of the nation’s energy, 30% of its outside assistance and 38% of its imports. The United States has long pursued a two-pronged approach on North Korea. Efforts to use Chinese influence to drag Pyongyang into multilateral negotiations is one prong. Increasing economic and military pressure is the other. On Monday, U.S. military officials in South Korea said about 65 soldiers from a new quick-strike, light-armored “Stryker” brigade would conduct a 10-day training operation in Osan, according to a South Korean government Web site. The Pentagon had no comment on the report. Analysts say the brigade is the type of fast-moving unit that would be ideal for action against North Korea.

“There are a number of subtle and not so subtle things the administration is doing to signal to the North that we’re prepared if they make trouble,” said Robert Einhorn, who led negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton administration.

Efron reported from Washington and Verhovek from Beijing.

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