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US Open to N. Korea Dialogue Despite Bush Criticism - 2002-01-31


The State Department says the United States remains open to dialogue with North Korea despite President Bush's sharp criticism of the Pyongyang government Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. Mr. Bush said countries like North Korea, Iran and Iraq form what he termed an "axis of evil" because of their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration has sought to continue the diplomatic dialogue with North Korea begun under President Clinton, and officials here say they remain interested in talking with the North despite President Bush's sharp criticism of Pyongyang in his message to Congress.

The president described North Korea as a regime arming itself with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its own citizens, and warned he would not stand by and allow such regimes to threaten the United States with dangerous weapons.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher defended the president's depiction of North Korea as factual, but also said the administration remains ready to engage Pyongyang in talks on all issues of concern to both governments. "We've offered to discuss these issues, these very serious issues, in a serious manner at any time, any place without preconditions," he said. "The fact that we identify the non-proliferation concerns as among the most serious dangers in the world these days, as the president did last night, should be a message to North Korea that it is imperative for them to respond to our offer and to sit down and discuss these and the other issues of concern, including conventional forces on the peninsula, and terrorism, and humanitarian concerns as well."

Mr. Boucher also said the administration continues to support South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung's efforts to engage North Korea, which he said were "essential" to achieving lasting peace and security on the Korean peninsula.

He said the United States will continue to coordinate closely with both the Seoul government and Japan on its policy toward the North.

The comments come in advance of a New York meeting Friday between Secretary of State Colin Powell and South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung Soo, who will be holding talks on the sidelines of the Davos world economic forum, which is being held this year in New York.

That meeting is intended in part to lay groundwork for President Bush's planned visit to South Korea and talks with President Kim, at which the two countries' approach to Pyongyang will be a key issue.

The most recent U.S.-North Korean meeting was an "introductory" session in New York earlier this month between State Department envoy Jack Pritchard and Pyongyang's new U.N. ambassador, Pak Gil-yon.

The two sides have an on-going dispute over implementation of their 1994 "framework" agreement under which North Korea froze a nuclear program, suspected of having a weapons component, in return for two Western-designed nuclear power plants.

The United States says North Korea is delaying completion of the project, perhaps by several years, by refusing to give international inspectors full access to its Yongbyon nuclear complex, while the North blames the United States for the delay and wants compensation.