In its first concession after months of hostility, North Korea on Saturday signaled that it would consider President Bush’s offer of written security assurances in return for dismantling its nuclear program.
The conciliatory statement, first reported by the North Korean news agency, marked an abrupt about-face for the government in Pyongyang, which days earlier had ridiculed Bush’s offer as “laughable” and “not worth considering.”
There was speculation in Seoul that the change of heart was a result of pressure from China, which brokered six-party talks in August and has been trying to coax the North Koreans back to the table for another round. Wu Bangguo, the leader of the Chinese legislature, is scheduled to arrive in Pyongyang on Tuesday for a three-day trip during which the issue of restarting the talks should be high on the agenda.
North Korea’s move came after a concession by Bush, who said Oct. 19 that if the regime dismantled its nuclear program, his administration would consider giving the North written security assurances that the U.S. would not attack the nation.
Bush’s offer fell short of what the North Koreans had been demanding -- a formal nonaggression treaty -- but still represented a major turnaround for an administration that had previously insisted that the dismantling of weapons be a precondition for negotiations.
In Washington on Saturday, a State Department spokeswoman confirmed that the North Koreans had responded to Bush’s proposal.
“The North Koreans passed us a message late yesterday in the New York channel,” said spokeswoman Susan Pittman, using the department’s term for sporadic contacts between North Korean diplomats at the United Nations and officials at the State Department.
“We hope that North Korea will return to the six-party talks in the near future to negotiate all the issues.” Pittman said the North Koreans’ message was similar to a statement by their Foreign Ministry.
In the statement attributed to a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, the North Korean news agency reported Saturday that the government was “ready to consider President Bush’s remark on a written nonaggression guarantee if it came from the intention to coexist with us and is something to positively operate on the realization of a package settlement proposal based on the principle of simultaneous actions.”
Although the North Korean statement was terse and vaguely written, it marked a rare moment of civility after months of vituperation toward the United States and was roundly cheered in diplomatic quarters. It was devoid of the insulting language that usually characterizes North Korean statements about the U.S., particularly Bush.
“Today’s announcement is a huge advance,” Kim Sung Han, a North Korea analyst at a think tank affiliated with the South Korean Foreign Ministry, told reporters in Seoul.
“We had expected North Korea to accept President Bush’s proposal. It is a positive development ahead of new six-party talks,” said Ban Ki Moon, a foreign policy advisor to the South Korean president.
Iran also bowed to international pressure several days ago, saying it would suspend its uranium enrichment program and sign an agreement permitting international inspections.
South Korea, China, Russia and Japan, all parties in the North Korea talks, have been pushing hard for both Washington and Pyongyang to moderate their positions. North Korea is believed to be forging ahead as quickly as possible to build a nuclear weapon. The isolationist communist country said last month that it had completed extraction of weapons-grade plutonium from nuclear-reactor fuel rods and that it might test a nuclear bomb shortly.
If left unchecked, the North Koreans could produce five or six nuclear devices in addition to the two they are believed to have developed.
U.S. allies in the region -- particularly South Korea -- believe that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is using the threats out of fear that he could become the target of a preemptive attack such as the one that took place in Iraq this year, and that the U.S. must offer security guarantees in order for the North Koreans to disarm. Bush’s offer, which according to officials in Seoul was more of a concept than a formal proposal, was made last weekend on the eve of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok, Thailand.
The United States has repeatedly ruled out a formal nonaggression pact -- the very term, diplomats point out, having been discredited by the pact that Adolf Hitler signed with Poland before his 1939 invasion.
At the same time, many believe that North Korea has reason to fear a U.S. invasion, given that Bush has lumped it together with Iraq and Iran in an “axis of evil” and that the president has expressed the same personal loathing for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as he has for Saddam Hussein. As one Western diplomat put it, referring to North Korea, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that somebody is not out to get you.”
Meanwhile, a U.S. congressman, Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), is heading to Pyongyang this week and hopes to secure a meeting with the North Korean leader. Weldon, who also visited North Korea in May, said that the North Koreans wanted to negotiate a multi-stage deal whereby they would gradually freeze, then dismantle, their nuclear program in return for security guarantees, financial aid and better relations with the U.S.
Weldon is one of a number of Republicans who believe that the Bush administration should seek to strike a deal with Kim.
“There are those in the administration who would like to take a more hawkish view. But I would say sanctions did not work with Saddam. They didn’t work with Castro. Until we’ve used up all our diplomatic options, we shouldn’t give up on North Korea,” Weldon said last week.
A 1994 deal under which North Korea was supposed to mothball its weapons program in exchange for energy assistance broke down last year amid revelations that the regime had been cheating on the pact.
Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.