The Bush administration says energy aid to North Korea could resume, once Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear program. But the White House denies it is offering any concessions, and stresses nothing will happen, until the North Koreans comply with their international obligations.
Energy aid to North Korea was halted last year, after U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted breaking a promise to freeze its nuclear program. In remarks Monday in Seoul, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly suggested aid could resume, if the North Koreans step back.
"Once we can get beyond nuclear weapons, there may be opportunities with the U.S., with private investors and other countries, to help North Korea in the energy area," Mr. Kelly said.
The Assistant Secretary of State appeared to be softening the U.S. position a bit. But when asked about his comments, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer denied there was a change in policy. He pointed to the January 7 joint statement issued in Washington by Japan, South Korea and the United States. That document said relations with Pyongyang would return to "a better path," if North Korea were to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs.
"I think, you are hearing just a different formulation of the exact same sentiment that was put in writing on January 7. I don't think you have anything new here. I think, you just have an expression that was specific to energy, as opposed to the more generalized statement about returning to a better path, leading to improved relations," Mr. Fleischer said.
In that joint statement, the United States said it was willing to talk to North Korea about how best to dismantle the nuclear program, and bring Pyongyang back into compliance with its nuclear obligations. Mr. Fleischer insisted that it is now up to North Korea to accept that invitation and show it is ready to keep its promises.
"The American offer to talk still stands, and no official response has been received," the White House spokesman said.
During a session with reporters, the Mr. Fleischer was repeatedly asked if the Bush administration is offering, if not a concession, then at least an enticement to North Korea. He did not back off from Secretary Kelly's offer, but he did say the United States will not give in to blackmail.
"North Korea wants to take the world through its blackmail play-book. And we won't play," he said.
Mr. Fleischer stressed that any dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program must be irreversible and verifiable. Pyongyang agreed to halt nuclear development in exchange for energy aid, under terms of a 1994 agreement with the United States.
Last October, the United States announced that North Korea was in violation of the pact. After energy aid was suspended, Pyongyang announced it was reopening nuclear facilities and expelling U.N. inspectors. Last week, it withdrew from the global nuclear arms control treaty, and then suggested it might resume tests of ballistic missiles.