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'Good Chance' North Korea May Abandon Nuclear Weapons Program, predicts Bush - 2003-04-20

U.S. President George W. Bush has said he believes there is a "good chance" of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. His comments come just days before U.S., North Korean and Chinese officials are due to meet in Beijing to discuss the issue.

President Bush said the United States is working with China, Japan and South Korea toward the goal of a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula. "I believe that all four of us, working together, have a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals," he said.

North Korea issued a statement in English Friday, saying it had begun reprocessing spent fuel rods at its nuclear reactor complex, but American officials said the wording was ambiguous. The State Department said the statement may have been mis-translated, and has not indicated whether a meeting of U.S., Chinese and North Korean leaders set to take place in Beijing next week would go ahead as planned.

Speaking with reporters at Fort Hood, Texas, where he celebrated Easter with U.S. troops, Mr. Bush said China's involvement makes achieving the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free Korean peninsula "more likely."

"The key thing in the North Korea agenda is that China is assuming a very important responsibility," Mr. Bush said.

China brokered the agreement to hold three-way talks. The United States had rejected North Korea's insistence on bilateral talks and a non-aggression treaty. Instead, Washington had insisted on a multilateral format, drawing other countries in the region.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told the American Fox News Sunday television program that he sees the North Korean nuclear crisis as a major security threat.

"Without question, I would probably name it Number One right now," Mr. Roberts said.

Also appearing on the program, Democratic Senator Evan Bayh said, if North Korea has re-processed spent fuel rods, it would be a significant and provocative act. He said this and other possible developments could increase pressure on the United States to extract concessions from North Korea.

"If they did create another one or two nuclear devices, maybe six months down the road, or so, you could look for them possibly testing one to demonstrate their nuclear capability. Then, the final step would be launching a test flight of one of these three-stage rockets capable of hitting the United States. They might fire one of those in the Pacific Ocean," he said.

North Korea Sunday repeated allegations that the United States is planning to attack it, a charge that Washington has denied. Pyongyang's state-run KCNA news agency called on Koreans worldwide to help defend against a U.S. war that it said would be aimed at preventing the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.