The United States said Thursday North Korea's prolonged absence from talks on its nuclear program raises doubts about its willingness to implement the agreement in principle on the issue reached a year ago. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the issue in New York Thursday with Pacific region colleagues, though Russia and China stayed away from the meeting.
The meeting here came just two days after the first anniversary of the agreement in principle that was supposed to have cleared the way to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.
The State Department's senior Asian affairs expert says Secretary Rice convened the meeting in part to show North Korea, which has boycotted nuclear talks since last November, that it doesn't hold veto power over further discussion of the matter.
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs Christopher Hill, who is also chief U.S. delegate to the nuclear talks, briefed reporters after the meeting involving Rice and her foreign minister colleagues from Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
In the agreement reached last year, North Korea said it was willing to give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid and security guarantees. But Pyongyang has refused to return to the Chinese-sponsored six-party nuclear talks since last November, citing U.S. sanctions imposed on a Macau bank used by North Korea as an economic outlet.
Hill said Secretary Rice reaffirmed the U.S. view that the sanctions imposed against the Macau firm, Banco Delta Asia, because of alleged North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering are unrelated to the nuclear issue. But he also said the United States is willing to deal with it on the sidelines of the six-party talks, provided North Korea returned to them.
He said North Korea's absence raises questions about whether the Banco Delta Asia matter is really what it keeping it away from the dialogue:
"The concern we all have is that the Macao issue is simply the latest of a series of pretexts for not attending talks," said Christopher Hill. "In this case, however, they have stayed out for a year, a time during which they should have been preparing to implement the joint statement whose first anniversary took place a couple days ago. Our concern of course, is that this has nothing to do with Macao, and everything to do with the North Korean unwillingness to implement what they've agreed to."
The hour-long meeting at Secretary Rice's hotel was a follow-up to a similar meeting on North Asian security issues held on the sidelines of ASEAN ministerial meetings in Malaysia last July.
China and Russia, both participants in the six-party talks, did not attend the New York meeting. But Hill said that was not intended as a snub and that Secretary Rice had had ample time to discuss North Korea in other meetings with her Russian and Chinese counterparts in the last few days.
Assistant Secretary Hill said the North Asia dialogue is not intended as a replacement for the six-party talks, though it should be seen as a signal to Pyongyang that its absence does not mean it has a veto over talks about its nuclear intentions.
"We don't have six-party talks going on, and we feel there ought to be some multi-lateral exchanges of information at least," he said. "And so this is an effort to continue the dialogue on North Korea and to make clear that their boycotting of the six-party process does not mean that they can veto multi-lateral discussions on security in northeast Asia."
Hill said an invitation for North Korea to attend Thursday's meeting had been extended through Pyongyang's U.N. mission but that no North Korean diplomat appeared.
The six-party talks, involving Japan, Russia and South Korea along with the United States, North Korea and host China began in 2003.
Pyongyang attended the last meeting in Beijing last November, two months after the U.S. Treasury moved against the Macao bank, but has refused to do so since then, citing the U.S. penalties.
Hill said the possibility of a North Korean nuclear test came up at Thursday's meeting and said it was something that all participants agreed would be a most unwelcome development.