A top U.S. official says there has been some progress, but no breakthroughs, in multilateral talks with North Korea. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly testified Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mr. Kelly says the United States, with support from Japan, South Korea, Russia and China, continues to seek nothing less than the complete dismantling of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development program.
He says U.S. proposals at the last round of talks in Beijing are part of a multilateral approach focusing for now on the most serious and immediate issue, North Korea's nuclear weapons efforts.
Based on yet-to-be-obtained North Korean agreement to verifiable dismantling of its nuclear program, these include possible heavy fuel oil shipments from non-U.S. sources, a study of energy requirements, possible multilateral security assurances, discussion of steps to lift remaining economic sanctions, and removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.
However, Mr. Kelly had this assessment of the north's current positions.
"The DPRK (North Korean) proposal re-stated its goal of a freeze for rewards, including energy assistance, lifting of sanctions, and removal from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism," he said. "We are continuing to study the North's proposal, and as I noted, it is clear we are still far from agreement."
Calling Pyongyang's current positions vague and short on detail, he says the North has at least agreed that a freeze of the nuclear program would be only a first step toward complete dismantlement.
Some lawmakers, including committee chairman Senator Richard Lugar, are concerned Pyongyang's recent bilateral contacts with countries in the multiparty talks could be an effort to avoid making commitments in the negotiations.
"While I appreciate the inclination of countries within the region to respond to initiatives from Pyongyang, these initiatives have not diminished the necessity of eliminating North Korea's nuclear programs," he said. "And I am hopeful the leadership of Japan, South Korea, Russia and China, will continue to work with the Bush administration in a multilateral context for a peaceful resolution of this matter."
Addressing this, Mr. Kelly says Japan and South Korea, as well as China and Russia remain firmly with the United States on the need for complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Democratic Senator Joseph Biden asked whether the Bush administration has softened its previously stated refusal to tolerate what it called "blackmail" by Pyongyang, and inquired about what has changed in the atmosphere at the talks. "I want to just be as blunt as we can here. What's the deal, what's happened, has anything changed," he asked.
Mr. Kelly replied, "What has changed, I think, is that North Korea has come to accept that the six-party process is what is going to resolve the issue and that they can't really escape. I think they recognize that dealing with the United States is not sufficient, that this is going to be [with] arrangements with the other countries."
Mr. Kelly, and Joseph De Trani, the U.S. special envoy to the multi-party talks, said the United States has made clear progress on human rights and other issues, including conventional arms, is needed if the north is to end its isolation.
"Our North Korean counterparts are very much aware [that] these issues, certainly human rights issues, have to be addressed as we move towards normalization, and we see the DPRK looking towards normalization as the ultimate goal," he said.
Mr. Kelly was somewhat skeptical about the level of Chinese support for U.S. objectives in the talks with North Korea. "I think they share our determination that nuclear weapons have no role on the Korean peninsula, but their pace and enthusiasm for pursuing the solution isn't exactly the same as ours," he said.
Pressed for clarification, the U.S. delegation head, Mr. De Trani, described China's role as crucial, adding that Washington continues to press Beijing to do more.
Mr. Kelly said the United States has told Pyongyang that no U.S. administration, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, will tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.