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Congressional Panel Urges Bush Administration to Seek Direct Talks with N. Korea - 2003-03-12

A senior U.S. official defended Bush administration policy toward North Korea to a skeptical Congress Wednesday.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee repeated their calls to the administration to heed the advice of regional allies and begin direct talks with North Korea to end the stand-off with that country.

"It is vital that the United States be open to bilateral diplomatic opportunities that could be useful in reversing North Korea's nuclear weapons program and in promoting stability," said Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the chairman of the committee.

But Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly told the committee that North Korea's nuclear ambitions are a multinational problem that deserves a multinational approach.

Mr. Kelly said that although U.S. allies in the region favor U.S.-North Korean dialogue to ease the situation, they are also open to a multilateral approach. He noted that talks on such an approach have been on-going since Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the region two weeks ago.

"Our discussions with Japan, South Korea, China and others," he said, "have been focused on the specific modalities of a multilateral approach."

Mr. Kelly said North Korea's insistence on bilateral talks with the United States is part a ploy by Pyongyang to try to win concessions:

"The more they [the North Koreans] emphasize this, the more we believe they think that the way to successful negotiations is to get us isolated out there so that after the call for talks, the next call is for concessions," he said. "This is a problem that has gone on for much too long." Such problems would be avoided, he argued, with a multilateral approach:

"By engaging more parties in negotiation, the assurances that any one of the parties might provide are emphasized and endorsed," said Mr. Kelly.

Earlier Wednesday, South Korea called on the United States to do more to resolve the dispute over North Korea's nuclear program, and again endorsed direct U.S.-North Korean talks as a way to ease the stand-off.