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Bush Administration Approaches Upcoming N. Korea Talks With Guarded Expectations - 2003-04-16

The Bush administration is cautioning against expectations of an early breakthrough in three-way talks with North Korea and China expected to start next week in Beijing on North Korea's nuclear program. U.S. officials also say they will press for the eventual inclusion of South Korea and Japan in the dialogue.

The three-way talks, brokered by China, represent a compromise between the multilateral, regional talks format pressed by the United States and North Korea's demand for a bilateral dialogue with Washington. And the State Department is describing the Beijing meeting as only a "preliminary step" toward a broader discussion process that spokesman Philip Reeker said will eventually have to include the governments in Seoul and Tokyo. "There's one thing that's absolutely clear, and that's that at whatever level the talks start, and with whatever attendance in the beginning, it has to ultimately encompass the views and thoughts of all the neighbors in the region. And so after consulting with both Seoul and Tokyo, who supported this to get the process of talks started, we agreed with the Chinese offer to do this. And so we think that obviously the early inclusion of the Republic of Korea and Japan will be essential to reach substantive results that we are seeking," Mr. Reeker said.

Mr. Reeker said the U.S. objective in the talks is the "verifiable and irreversible" end of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, though he made clear Pyongyang will be free to raise issues of concern it may have.

He also said if North Korea scraps its nuclear ambitions, the Bush administration would be willing to revive an initiative for U.S. aid and broader political recognition for Pyongyang which it said it had to shelve last year because of the nuclear crisis.

"If North Korea fully addresses the concerns of the international community by eliminating its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible manner, we would consider pursuing our bold initiative, a bold approach, you can call it a few things, in which we would be prepared to take political and economic steps that would substantially improve the lives of North Korea's people, which we think should be important to the North Koreans. But that's providing that North Korea also addresses our long-standing concerns," Mr. Reeker said. The United States is sending an inter-agency team of officials to the Beijing talks headed by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly.

In a visit to Pyongyang last October, he confronted North Korean officials with U.S. evidence that North Korea was secretly enriching uranium in violation of several agreements including the 1994 U.S.-North Korean "joint framework" that ostensibly froze that country's nuclear program.

Following that, Pyongyang ratcheted up tensions, among other things expelling U.N. nuclear inspectors and withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.

The stalemate suddenly eased last week, when North Korea dropped its insistence on bilateral talks with Washington. In comments Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the Iraq war and diplomatic pressure from Russia, among others, may have been factors in the North Korean move.

Mr. Powell spoke by telephone on the issue Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and President Bush had a similar conversation with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Both White House and State Department officials heaped praise on China for its diplomacy with North Korea, underlining growing cooperation between Washington and Beijing after a difficult start to relations after President Bush took office in 2001.