U.S. lawmakers are expressing frustration with the lack of progress in the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program. But a key U.S. official is defending the process as the best way to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing into the status of the six-party talks on North Korea, the Republican chairman, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, said key U.S. partners in the negotiations, particularly China and South Korea, do not appear to be willing to bring pressure to bear on North Korea:
"All the evidence appears to be that the Chinese position is one in which they are not prepared to use the economic pressures that are clearly there in terms of provision of energy and food for the people of the country," Mr. Lugar says. "The South Koreans are certainly ambivalent with regard to stronger measures in terms of the regime."
Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill responded that despite their different approaches, Beijing and Seoul are united with Washington in wanting the talks to succeed.
"While there are differences in tactics, where the Chinese are reluctant to use pressure and Mr. Chairman, as you said, the South Koreans are also reluctant to use that type of direct pressure, I want to emphasize there is absolutely no daylight between us on the issue of disarming North Korea. No one wants to see North Korea be maintained as a nuclear state," Mr. Hill says.
The six-party talks last convened in Beijing in June of last year, when the United States offered a detailed proposal offering political and economic incentives for North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program.
In an exchange with Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, Ambassador Hill said he believes the North Koreans are still weighing a response to the U.S. offer.
Mr. HILL: "I think they are continuing to make up their minds about doing away with a multi-decades old program of nuclear weapons, and they have not been able to come to a final decision yet."
Mr. FEINGOLD: "So are you saying that at this point there is nothing more we can do and we just have to wait for the North Koreans to change their minds?"
Mr. HILL: "Waiting is not a policy, and what we do is work very actively with the other participants in the six-party process."
Ambassador Hill's comments did not satisfy Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican:
"We have not seen progress. Obviously we have got difficulties here. I think most of us with an element of common sense would come to some conclusion that something is not working," Mr Hagel says.
Senator Hagel raised the possibility of the U.N. Security Council taking over the talks.
Ambassador Hill said the six-party process is the best approach, but he left the door open to other options.
I think it is important to expand our thinking. I think it is important to be considering other options out there, what we can possibly do," Mr. Hill says. "But I think it is important also not to be talking too publicly about other options because that undermines the six-party process, that makes people convinced we are moving away from the six-party process, and that is the wrong impression to give."
In a meeting with U.S. diplomats earlier this month, the North Koreans said they are willing to resume negotiations, after refusing to attend them for the past year.
Ambassador Hill said it is not in Pyongyang's interest to continue to boycott the talks, saying the sooner North Korea reaches agreement on disarmament, the sooner it can benefit from economic and security guarantees under such a deal.
The six party talks include Japan and Russia, as well as the United States, North Korea, South Korea and the host country China.