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US Says North Korean Sovereignty Not in Question

The State Department said Monday that no one, including the United States, questions North Korea's sovereignty. The comment followed a news account that Pyongyang is demanding a U.S. pledge to respect its sovereignty before it will again discuss the future of its nuclear weapons program.

The State Department says acceptance of North Korea's sovereignty has long been explicit in U.S. public statements, and it is calling on Pyongyang to return unconditionally to the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on its nuclear program.

The comments follow a New York Times report Monday that North Korea told a visiting American policy analyst it had disavowed a commitment to negotiate the step-by-step elimination of its nuclear weapons effort, and would consider freezing the program only if the United States pledged in advance to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The newspaper said North Korean officials conveyed the position to U.S. author and Korea expert Selig Harrison, who has just completed a visit to Pyongyang that included talks with senior figures, including Kim Yong Nam, the country's second-ranking official.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. officials have seen a variety of North Korean statements in recent months, some of them vituperative, about the United States and the six-party talks.

He said the "right place" for Pyongyang to seek redress for its concerns is the Chinese-sponsored negotiations, where he noted the United States has offered to be a party to multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security:

"The president has made clear we have no intention of invading North Korea. And as the Secretary [of State Rice] has said during her [Asia] trip, nobody questions their sovereignty," he said. "So again it boils down to, you know, are you willing to come back to talks without conditions? The United States and others are willing to come back for serious discussions without preconditions, and we would hope that North Korea would do that as well."

The North Korean remarks said to have been made to Mr. Harrison contrasted with press reports last week, following a Beijing visit by a senior North Korean envoy, that said Pyongyang might return to the six-party talks as early as mid-May.

A senior U.S. diplomat who spoke to reporters here said the North Korean position as conveyed by Mr. Harrison was also at variance with what China has been telling Washington about its latest contacts with Pyongyang, though he gave no details.

Mr. Harrison, of Washington's Center for International Policy, was quoted by the New York Times as saying that North Korea's recent statements declaring itself a nuclear power reflected growing influence in Pyongyang by hard-line military elements.

He also was reportedly told that North Korea would soon again harvest plutonium from fuel rods at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, giving it enough nuclear explosive to build several more bombs.

The six-party talks, also involving Japan, Russia and South Korea, have been idle since last June. At that time, the United States presented its proposal offering to be party to security guarantees if North Korea verifiably and irreversibly ended its weapons program.

The United States has said it would not consider increasing aid or diplomatic links to Pyongyang until disarmament is complete, but has said other parties to the talks could provide aid to the poverty-ridden communist state as the process unfolded.