North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told a Chinese envoy last week that his country would resume talks over its nuclear weapons program only if it got assurances that the United States had no hostile intent and a promise that its negotiators could speak directly to the Americans, diplomats here said.
Kim was said to be particularly miffed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s recent characterization of North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” and was demanding an explanation and apology.
In a statement Thursday, North Korea also said that because of the U.S. attitude, it no longer felt bound by a 1999 moratorium on missile testing.
The North Koreans’ demands and rhetoric could make it difficult to resurrect what had been an ongoing series of talks in Beijing involving six nations, the U.S. among them.
“Kim Jong Il wants to see a declaration from the U.S. side that it has no hostile intent” toward North Korea, said an Asian diplomat who described himself as pessimistic about talks resuming in the near future. “He also wants a formal bilateral meeting with the United States. These two conditions will not be met easily by the American side.”
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon was more upbeat. He told reporters here Wednesday that North Korea was not so much setting “preconditions” as seeking a better “atmosphere” for talking. He also suggested that the Bush administration might drop its long-standing refusal to talk one-on-one with the North Koreans as long as such discussions were “within the framework” of the six-party talks.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said he was not troubled by North Korea’s belligerent stance.
“North Korea has always acted like this. It says it has absolutely rejected talks, and then says it’s ready to take part,” he told reporters in Tokyo. “But there is no way that these nations would accept conditions prior to the six-way talks.”
Asked to comment on the moratorium threat at a U.S. State Department briefing Thursday, spokesman Richard Boucher referred to statements made the previous day.
“Our view is that the best course of action for everybody is to resume six-party talks as soon as possible,” department spokesman Adam Ereli had said Wednesday. “That’s clearly the view of five of the six parties.
“As far as threats to undertake tests or other military activity, that certainly is not helpful and doesn’t serve a useful purpose.”
North Korea rattled the international community last month with a declaration that it had developed nuclear weapons and was suspending its participation in the six-party talks. However, in a meeting last week in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, Kim told Chinese presidential envoy Wang Jiarui that his government would return to the talks under the right circumstances. Kim also informed the Chinese envoy that his country now considered itself to be a nuclear state, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
With no better ideas for curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S. and the other parties to the talks -- China, South Korea, Japan and Russia -- have been jetting among Asian capitals in hopes of rescuing the negotiations. China’s top negotiator, Wu Dawei, met in Beijing on Thursday with the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Christopher Hill, who was recently tapped to head the American delegation at the talks.
The North Koreans say they need nuclear weapons to protect themselves against a preemptive strike by the United States. President Bush has said repeatedly that the U.S. has no intention of invading or attacking North Korea, but he has declined to use the broader phrase “no hostile intent.”
The North Korean Human Rights Act, which Bush signed into law in October, allocates as much as $24 million to promote human rights in North Korea, which many in Pyongyang see as an effort to foment regime change.
Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, a Berkeley think tank, said the North Koreans would like a joint communique similar to that signed by one of their senior officials in an October 2000 visit to Washington.
Coming during the final months of the Clinton administration, the communique said that “neither government would have hostile intent toward the other ... and [would] make every effort in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.”
The statement also called for a bilateral meeting, which has never taken place.
“I don’t think the North Koreans are so deluded to think that the Bush administration will be friendly,” Hayes said, “but I think they want to see less hostile rhetoric.”
Relations with the United States have been in a downward spiral since Bush described North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iraq and Iran, in his 2002 State of the Union speech. Although Bush has tempered his words in recent months, Kim reportedly demanded an apology for Rice’s comment, which she made during her Senate confirmation hearings in January.
The State Department, in its annual report on human rights released Monday, said that North Korea held between 150,000 and 200,000 people, including children, in prison camps and that its human rights record was “extremely poor.”