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US Downplays Differences with Negotiating Partners on North Korea

The State Department said Wednesday reports of a rift between the United States and other participants in Chinese-sponsored talks on North Korea's nuclear program are exaggerated. Chinese and South Korean officials have publicly urged the Bush administration to show more flexibility in the negotiations.

The stalled six-party negotiations with North Korea dominated the agenda of Secretary of State Colin Powell's just-completed trip to China, Japan and South Korea.

And Mr. Powell returned to Washington to find newspaper headlines of discord between the United States on one hand, and South Korea and China on the other, over the conduct of the talks.

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon told reporters after meeting Mr. Powell Tuesday that the United States and its partners in the talks must come up with a more creative and realistic proposal in order to draw Pyongyang back to the bargaining table.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, meanwhile, was quoted by the Chinese news agency as telling Mr. Powell Monday that China wanted to see a more flexible and practical attitude on the part of Washington.

At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted that differences between the parties were being exaggerated, and that the focus of Mr. Powell's Asia talks was on finding a way to restart the talks, which have been idle since June.

Spokesman Boucher said the United States understands the need to be creative in negotiations, but said there would be no changes to what he termed a comprehensive and flexible U.S. proposal as long as North Korea continues its holdout.

"We're prepared to discuss that proposal with other governments at the bargaining table. The point the Secretary has made, and I think some of the other governments have made as well, is that's the place to discuss things," he said. "You don't sit around modifying or whittling down your proposal, or making new offers, because one party, because a single party to the six-party talks, has been delaying and stalling."

The Bush administration has said it is prepared to be part of multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security in the context of an agreement for a verifiable and irreversible end to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

It has ruled out any U.S. aid or diplomatic benefits to Pyongyang until disarmament is complete, but has said other participants could provide aid as the process unfolds.

A round of talks planned for September was scrapped after North Korea refused to attend, citing what it said a hostile policy by the Bush administration.

In an interview Wednesday with the CNBC cable television network, Secretary Powell said he could not predict when North Korea might return to the talks but said the rest of the parties are ready to do it right away.

Mr. Powell said the package now on the table incorporates ideas from U.S. allies, and includes what he termed some early assistance to Pyongyang from Japan and South Korea.

But he said the United States would want to see some solid commitments and performance on disarmament by North Korea before it would become deeply involved in providing aid.

Mr. Powell cited as the reason for this caution, the United States' experience with the 1994 nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea.

He said that no sooner had Pyongyang signed the Agreed Framework capping its plutonium-based weapons effort, then it began moving in another direction through uranium-enrichment.