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US Stresses Benefits for N. Korea If It Returns to Positive Engagement - 2002-12-31

The United States Monday continued to stress a non-confrontational approach toward North Korea and its renewed drive for nuclear weapons. A senior Bush administration envoy will go to South Korea and Japan, and, possibly, to other Asian countries, as early as next week to try to coordinate policy among the allies.

Officials here say the United States is contemplating neither military action nor even new economic sanctions against North Korea, but rather stressing the benefits that might accrue to the Pyongyang government if it were to roll back its recent nuclear decisions.

In keeping with a mild tone set by Secretary of State Colin Powell in television interviews Sunday, spokesmen for the White House and State Department said the world community stands ready to help the impoverished Asian country but that North Korea will be unable to realize any of the benefits until it returns to compliance with its international obligations.

At a press briefing, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the already reclusive North Korean government has isolated itself further with its recent nuclear moves, but has not gone beyond a point of no return in relations with either the United States or its neighbors in the region:

"North Korea has put itself in this position. North Korea can change course and get itself out of this position. They have the power to do that. It's what will bring them benefits by working, engaging, in a positive way with the international community," said Mr. Reeker. "And we saw what countries like Japan were prepared to do, were talking about: major economic support for North Korea. South Korea prepared and focused on much better relations. The United States, under President Bush's policy, prepared to pursue a bold dialogue aimed at having a better relationship with North Korea."

The Bush administration says it was preparing a sweeping initiative for better relations with Pyongyang this past summer. But at the same time U.S. intelligence began picking up signs that North Korea was enriching uranium in violation of international commitments including the 1994 "joint framework" accord with the United States.

North Korea acknowledged the existence of the project in October during a Pyongyang visit by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly that was the high-level mission of its kind to North Korea by a Bush administration official.

Officials say Mr. Kelly will travel to Seoul and Tokyo, and possibly other Asian capitals as early as next week to discuss the deteriorating situation, including North Korea's decision last week to expel International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The IAEA will report to the U.N. Security Council next week, which could impose sanctions against North Korea, but administration officials were non-committal Monday on whether the United States would endorse such penalties now.

In his television appearances Sunday, Secretary of State Powell downplayed any sense of crisis over North Korea, and backed away from a Clinton administration threat of force to prevent North Korea from adding to an arsenal of perhaps one or two nuclear weapons.

Mr. Powell said the current situation requires patience and will "play out in the weeks and months ahead."