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US Senators Urge Bush to Begin Talks With N. Korea - 2003-03-07

U.S. lawmakers are keeping the pressure on the Bush administration to begin talks with North Korea to resolve the standoff with that country. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee examined ways the United States could approach such dialogue.

In the wake of a series of provocative acts by Pyongyang, many lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to engage in direct bilateral talks with the North Koreans to ease tensions. Among them is the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana. "In my judgement, it is vital that the United States not dismiss bilateral diplomatic opportunities that could be useful in reversing North Korea's nuclear program, and in promoting stability," he said.

The comments were echoed by the ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. "I do not know what we lose by talking," said Senator Biden.

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang began to escalate last October, when the administration said North Korea admitted to having a program to enrich uranium in violation of international agreements. Since then, Pyongyang has expelled United Nations inspectors from the Yongbyon nuclear complex that had been frozen under a 1994 agreement with the United States, and fired up the reactor at the site. In the latest provocation, North Korean jets intercepted a U.S. surveillance plane over international waters Sunday.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to pursue bilateral talks with North Korea, saying it does not want to reward bad behavior. Instead, it favors a multilateral approach to diplomacy with Pyongyang.

But foreign policy analyst Arnold Kanter of the Scowcroft Group is not impressed by that argument. "I think the debate about whether talks with the North Koreans should be multilateral or could be direct and bilateral is somewhere between irrelevant and distracting, and in no event should it be allowed to be a major stumbling block," he said.

Mr. Kanter said bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang could offer some important benefits. "It might be a face-saving way for the North Koreans to stop their self-destructive march toward the brink," said Arnold Kanter. "Second, countries that have thus far been unwilling or unable to press North Korea to meet our demands might see such an offer by us as a reason to engage Pyongyang in exactly the kind of concerted way that an effective multilateral approach demands."

Foreign policy expert Robert Einhorn of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also underscores the importance of bilateral talks, but says they must come with conditions. "North Korea should pledge that while the talks are under way, it will not reprocess its spent fuel, and it will permit the international atomic energy agency to return to Yongbyon for the purpose of reapplying monitoring seals at its reprocessing facility," he said. "For its part, the United States should pledge that as long as those seals are intact, it will not engage in military action against Yongbyon and will not support United Nations sanctions against North Korea."

Mr. Einhorn said U.S. allies have important roles to play as well. He suggested China should make clear to North Korea that it will not use its veto to block United Nations sanctions if Pyonyang pursues the nuclear option. He said South Korea should be frank with its northern neighbor that if Pyongyang decides to become a nuclear power it would put a break on inter-Korean relations.