The Bush administration has sent a senior diplomat to represent the United States at ceremonies in North Korea Wednesday marking a new stage of construction for a U.S.-led nuclear power project there. It follows a brief meeting last week in Brunei between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his North Korean counterpart.
Officials here say the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, Jack Pritchard, will attend the ceremony marking the start of concrete pouring at the reactor site at Kumho on North Korea's east coast. But they are downplaying the political significance of the move, and say the administration is still considering whether to open a full-scale dialogue with Pyongyang.
Mr. Pritchard will travel to the project site with officials from South Korea, Japan and the European Union, who make up the consortium building the power plant under the 1994 "joint framework" accord between the United States and North Korea.
Under the deal, North Korea agreed to freeze a nuclear program U.S. officials believed had a secret weapons component. In return, the United States promised to build two safeguarded power reactors through the consortium, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). It is also providing North Korea with fuel oil while the plants are being built.
The decision to send Mr. Pritchard to the ceremony follows a brief meeting last Saturday between Secretary of State Colin Powell and North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Num-Sun on the sidelines of an ASEAN conference in Brunei.
It was the highest-level meeting between the two countries since the end of the Clinton administration.
But State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said Secretary Powell is still considering with other administration officials how to proceed with Pyongyang, and that Mr. Pritchard will not have contact with North Korean officials outside of the reactor event:
"The Secretary has indicated that he'll be consulting with senior officials here in Washington," said Mr. Reeker. "And the purpose of Ambassador Pritchard's visit is to represent the United States at this event, at the pouring ceremony for the light-water reactor. He has no meetings scheduled outside of the KEDO ceremony."
The Bush administration is weighing whether to send Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to Pyongyang to resume a high-level dialogue. He had been expected to make such a trip several weeks ago, but plans were shelved after the naval clash between North and South Korean forces in late June.
Pyongyang later expressed regret over the incident and last week agreed to restart cabinet-level meetings with the Seoul government.
Despite President Bush's depiction of North Korea last January as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran, the administration has said it is ready, in principle, for political talks with Pyongyang on issues of concern to each side.
The U.S. has said it will press for an end to North Korea's exports of missile technology, and for less-threatening conventional military force deployments by Pyongyang. It is also pressing the north to accept international nuclear inspections, an issue that has put the reactor project at least three years behind schedule.