President Bush says he is optimistic that North Korea's acceptance of multi-lateral talks will lead to the verifiable dismantling of that country's nuclear weapons program. U.S. officials are reiterating there will be benefits for Pyongyang if it does so.
Administration officials are stopping short of proclaiming a diplomatic triumph with North Korea's acceptance of multi-lateral talks, expected to begin next month or sooner in Beijing.
But they say it does achieve a key U.S. goal of putting the issue in a broader forum with participation of countries that can wield major leverage with Pyongyang and also potentially help reward it for giving up its nuclear ambitions.
The Clinton administration thought it had capped North Korea's nuclear program with the bilateral "Agreed Framework" of 1994 in which Pyongyang froze its nuclear facilities in exchange for western energy aid.
But the revelation last year that North Korea had a secret uranium enrichment program effectively scuttled the framework and precipitated the current crisis.
In a talk with reporters Friday, President Bush said the United States was leery about returning to a bilateral format because North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il had not been truthful in dealing with the previous administration.
Effusively thanking China for helping broker the new talks, Mr. Bush said they will bring in other countries Japan, South Korea and Russia with vested interests in a non-nuclear Korean peninsula.
"We're up-beat about the fact that others are assuming responsibility for peace besides the United States of America, and we'll see how the dialogue goes," he said. "We fully understand the past. We are hopeful however that Mr. Kim Jong-Il, because he's hearing other voices, will make the decision to totally dismantle his nuclear weapons program that he will allow there to be complete transparency and verifiability. And we're optimistic that that can happen."
North Korea had insisted that the nuclear issue was a bilateral matter with the United States to be dealt with in direct talks, and it said Friday it had accepted the six-nation format only with the understanding that one-on-one contacts would also take place.
The White House said Friday there would be no private discussions with North Korea in the upcoming talks though State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the format would not preclude direct U.S.-North Korean exchanges of view.
"It will be a multi-lateral discussion. There are ways in that multi-lateral setting, whether it's across the table or on the side or in some other way, there are probably a variety of ways, that any party can convey to another party directly what it wants to say," said Mr. Boucher. "And we've noted that fact in our conversations and in our public statements and that's the basis on which we'll attend these talks."
Professing concern about possible pre-emptive U.S. military action against it, North Korea had also demanded a non-aggression pact with Washington as a condition for nuclear talks.
The Bush administration ruled out such a treaty because, among other things, the U.S. Senate would never ratify it. But spokesman Boucher suggested again Friday the administration might consider less-formal security assurances.
"The United States has made clear, the president and the secretary [of state] and others that we have no intention of invading North Korea," said Mr. Boucher. "I guess we understand that that the chief concern that they want to talk about is security concerns. We'll hear what they have to say, and there may be ways to find to communicate that, our position to the North Koreans, but at this point I can't prejudge the outcome of discussions."
Officials here hold out the prospect of increased aid and political recognition for North Korea, by the United States and other participants in the talks, if Pyongyang verifiably and irreversibly scraps its nuclear program.
They say senior U.S. diplomat Jack Pritchard a point-man for past U.S.-North Korean contacts met late Thursday in New York with members of North Korea's United Nations mission and was officially told of Pyongyang's decision to join the six-way talks.