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U.S. Moving Closer to Allies on N. Korea

Times Staff Writers

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scored a major victory in recent days when North Korea agreed to return to international negotiations on dismantling its nuclear weapons programs. And so did one of the Bush administration’s critics, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun.

After nearly three years of wrangling in Washington over strategy, Rice has steered the administration much closer to the course that Roh and others have been urging: to meet directly with the North Koreans and offer them tangible incentives, including energy assistance, security guarantees and humanitarian aid, to renounce their nuclear weapons programs.

“The United States has been listening to the South Koreans, the Chinese, the Russians,” said Moon Chung-in, a South Korean academic with close ties to Roh’s government. “Maybe they are not changing their fundamental position, but there has been a clear change in tactics. We can believe now that President Bush is truly interested in a peaceful solution.”

Rice contended this week that there had been no change in U.S. policy: to isolate North Korea, refuse to reward it for bad behavior and negotiate only within the six-nation framework that includes China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

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Yet on Wednesday, Rice embraced South Korea’s new offer to send 2 million kilowatts of electricity across the demilitarized zone to the energy-starved North if the government in Pyongyang committed to denuclearization. That offer seemed to have cinched the deal for North Korea to return to talks, although Rice’s aides said it could not be known for certain what tipped the balance.

During his 2002 election campaign, Roh argued that Bush’s insistence on isolating North Korea to force it to abandon its nuclear weapons programs would fail. He urged the United States to hold one-on-one talks with North Korea.

“One can use both a carrot and a stick with North Korea, but if you use a stick and it fails, the results will be devastating,” Roh said in an interview shortly after his election. “The carrot, I know, will definitely work in the end.... There is no other way.”

It’s too soon to say whether the carrot approach will work, but the Bush administration has certainly hidden the stick for the time being.

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A senior aide who briefed reporters aboard Rice’s plane Wednesday after her six-day trip to Asia said the United States had known about the energy proposal “for some time,” although he would not say since when. The South Korean unification minister presented the offer June 17 to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who reportedly said he was prepared to give up his nuclear weapons programs.

With Rice beside him, South Korea’s foreign minister said Wednesday that his country had sought to break the yearlong “stalemate” in the six-party talks with the energy offer. North Korea pulled out of the negotiations in June 2004.

But on the flight back to Washington, Rice took issue when a reporter implied that the South Korean electricity offer had broken the diplomatic logjam.

“How do you know that it’s the South Koreans that made the difference?” Rice said. “Have you been talking to the North Koreans about what made the difference?”

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She said the joint efforts of the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia had made North Korea realize that the only way it would get the aid and security it sought was by returning to the disarmament talks.

Rice’s aide said that in recent months, the U.S. and its allies had worked to put together a package that could lure North Korea back to the table.

North Korea has long sought a written security guarantee from the United States, which the Bush administration has refused. But administration officials have pledged, both publicly and in a private meeting recently with North Korean diplomats in New York, that the United States had no intention of attacking or invading North Korea.

In a speech in March in Tokyo, Rice also said that the United States recognized North Korea as a sovereign state, another key issue for the Kim government.

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“It was designed to say, OK, let’s check that box,” said another senior Rice aide who spoke to reporters on the plane. Asked about a written pledge, he replied, “Speeches are printed on paper.”

Then in May, Bush referred to the North Korean leader with the honorific “Mr.”

“The president referred to ‘Mr. Kim Jong Il,’ and we heard that folks liked that, and so the president took care to do it again,” the official said.

Another important move came last month, when the United States announced it would give impoverished North Korea 50,000 tons of food, without -- as the aide put it -- any attempts “to make them jump through nuclear hoops” to get it.

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Following Pyongyang’s announcement Saturday that it would return to the talks, South Korea also said it would send the North a large food shipment.

Finally, the State Department under Rice has not been afraid to have some direct contacts with the North Koreans, even though Bush has ruled out the idea of bilateral negotiations, saying it would reward bad behavior.

Critics have regarded Bush’s stance as ideological intransigence, noting that the United States has successfully negotiated with such enemies as the former Soviet Union and Libya.

Rice’s aides have finessed the issue by narrowing the definition of a bilateral negotiation.

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In recent months, there have been several U.S.-North Korean meetings in New York, including the one at which American diplomats pledged that Washington had no intention to attack. On Saturday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill had a three-hour dinner at a Beijing hotel with the head of the North Korean delegation to the six-party talks, Kim Gye Gwan. No senior Chinese officials attended, a second senior U.S. official said.

Over a repast of steak, cheesecake and California wine, Hill and Kim agreed on the week of July 25 for the resumption of the multinational talks, and they toasted to progress at the negotiating table, the official said. Kim even accepted Hill’s suggestion that the North Korean announcement about returning to the negotiations should mention that the goal of the talks was the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

U.S. officials said such meetings were not really “bilaterals” because there were no negotiations over substance, only discussions of the “modalities” for future talks. But the meetings were enough to satisfy the North Koreans.

In its official statement announcing the resumption of talks, Pyongyang said: “The U.S. side clarified its official stand to recognize [North Korea] as a sovereign state, not to invade it and hold bilateral talks within the framework of the six-party talks.”

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The warmth and kind rhetoric that greeted Rice in Beijing and Seoul was markedly different from last year, when the six-nation process appeared to be near collapse and both Chinese and South Korean officials were demanding that the Bush administration drop its hard line on North Korea.

During a trip to Asia by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in late October, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said Washington “must come up with a more creative and realistic proposal.” Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said the United States should be “flexible and practical.”

Now, South Korean officials are welcoming the shift in the U.S. approach, but are loath to make too much of it publicly, for fear they might jinx it.

As one South Korean official said Wednesday with a chuckle, “I don’t want to say ‘flexibility,’ Secretary Rice and Christopher Hill in the same sentence. I don’t think it helps.... Let’s just say the U.S. had done what it can do to help restart the six-party talks.”

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Rice argued Wednesday that all of the elements in the current offer to North Korea were in the package offered during the last round of talks in June 2004, including a pledge to consider Pyongyang’s energy needs and the promise of security guarantees.

But North Korea complained that that plan required it to completely dismantle its nuclear programs before receiving any benefits, and walked away from the talks.

Washington wants Pyongyang to respond to the 2004 proposal at the talks this month, but this time, U.S. diplomats are signaling flexibility about the sequence of disarmament and benefits.

“It’s a proposal, not a demand,” said the second Rice aide, adding that North Korea could outline its own proposal on the order of events, as long as it did so at the multinational talks.

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What Washington will not compromise on is its demand that North Korea completely end its plutonium reprocessing and uranium enrichment programs and dismantle the nuclear weapons that Pyongyang claims to possess.

“Nuclear weapons programs means nuclear weapons programs, period,” Rice said in Seoul. Still, she avoided specifying a timetable or benchmarks that North Korea must meet, and aides would not say what kind of international inspections the United States would demand to verify disarmament.

But for the talks to succeed, Pyongyang must put all of its nuclear weapons programs on the table and halt its pattern of bellicose statements, said L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea specialist at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington.

In the Bush administration, “I don’t think there is stomach for another round of gamesmanship,” he said. “One way or another, this is the last go at the six-party talks.”

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