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US Downplays Differences with Seoul Over N. Korea's Nuclear Program


The Bush administration is downplaying differences with South Korea amid preparations for the resumption of Chinese-sponsored six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon met top Bush administration officials on the issue Tuesday

Washington and Seoul differ on whether North Korea should be allowed to retain a civilian nuclear program after a disarmament deal. But U.S. officials are minimizing the issue amid a quickening pace of diplomatic consultations in advance of the planned resumption of six-party talks next week.

While the Bush administration has ruled out a nuclear future for North Korea, Mr. Ban has said in Washington his government could accept a future civilian program under international safeguards, provided Pyongyang verifiably abandoned its weapons drive.

Mr. Ban had evening talks in Washington with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after a meeting earlier Tuesday with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that the administration and Mr. Ban were "on the same page" with regard to their overall approach to the six-party talks.

"We all share the goal of a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. And certainly our view is there is no need for a [North] Korean nuclear program. We've made that very clear," he said. "We also support the South Korean proposal, that they have tabled in the six-party talks, to address some of North Korea's energy issues. It's a topic that they've brought up repeatedly. We thought that the South Korea proposal is a creative way to address North Korea's energy needs."

South Korea has said it would be prepared to meet a major portion of the North's electricity needs as part of an international aid package that would accompany a disarmament accord.

Under a U.S. proposal made at the six-party talks last year, North Korea would get aid and multi-lateral security guarantees in exchange for a verifiable and irreversible end to its nuclear weapons program.

While both South Korea and Russia appear to accept the idea of a civilian nuclear program for Pyongyang under international safeguards, the United States opposes it because North Korea violated the nuclear freeze agreement it made with Washington in 1994.

Under the 1994 accord, North Korea was to have received two western-designed nuclear power plants to replace its Soviet-era reactor at Yongbyon.

But the so-called Agreed Framework collapsed when Pyongyang told a U.S. envoy in 2002 it was secretly enriching uranium and later expelled United Nations inspectors and reopened the Yongbyon facility.

In a talk with reporters Tuesday, the chief U.S. delegate to the six-party talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the idea of North Korea ever getting a nuclear plant is moot, since Pyongyang cannot afford the multi-billion-dollar cost, and no one else would be willing to provide one.

Mr. Hill said U.S. and North Korean diplomats would hold another meeting in New York before the end of the week, which would be their fourth contact in recent days.

The six-party talks, which involve North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, Japan and host China, are to resume in Beijing sometime next week after a three-week recess.

Delegates will seek to complete a statement of principles to govern further negotiations.

A senior State Department official said ultimate success will depend on a strategic decision by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program.