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US Downplays Report of Economic Incentives for N. Korea to End Nuclear Program

Senior U.S. diplomats convened with colleagues from Japan and South Korea Wednesday to map strategy for the six-party talks opening August 27 in Beijing, on the North Korean nuclear weapons program. As the Washington meeting got underway, Secretary of State Colin Powell downplayed a published report the Bush administration was considering economic incentives for Pyongyang to give up its weapons ambitions.

The informal three-way talks began here amid press speculation that the Bush administration might be easing its long-held opposition to making concessions to North Korea before it dismantled its nuclear weapons program.

The New York Times, in its Wednesday editions, quoted administration sources as saying the disarmament incentives might include help for North Korea's hard-pressed economy.

However in a talk with reporters Secretary of State Powell said that while it has long been concerned about the plight of the North Korean people, the Bush administration has not put forward any economic aid proposals. "We, as you will recall, last year and previously have said that we're looking for a different relationship with North Korea," he said. "The president has said many times that he is concerned about the welfare of the North Korean people. It concerns him that people are in need and starving, and that something can be done about it. But we have put no economic proposals forward at the moment of the kind that were referenced in some newspapers this morning."

Mr. Powell also said the United States was not open to disguising aid to Pyongyang by channeling it through Japan or South Korea or encouraging them to contribute, saying the administration would not engage in what he termed "dodges."

Speaking in Crawford, Texas, earlier in the day, President Bush would not respond to a question about so-called "front-loaded" incentives to North Korea, saying that the upcoming Beijing meeting will underline the fact that Pyongyang's nuclear efforts are more than just a United States concern. "We're going to continue the dialogue with North Korea to make it clear to them that not only does the United States feel strongly that the peninsula ought to be nuclear-free, but other countries which live in the neighborhood feel the same way. And remember the policy has evolved from one of bilateral pressure to negotiate bilaterally with the North Koreans. That's what we did in the past. And that policy unfortunately failed because the North Koreans didn't keep their word about whether or not they would enrich uranium," he said.

Mr. Bush said it is "very helpful" that Japan, South Korea and Russia will join in the dialogue that began in an initial three-way U.S.-Chinese-North Korean meeting last April. He said good progress was being made in the process and said he believed the nuclear issue can be dealt with "in a peaceful way."

The preparatory talks here for the Beijing meeting are being hosted by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and also include South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-Hyuck and Japanese Foreign Ministry Director-General Mitoji Yabunaka.

The Bush administration has insisted there be no benefits, diplomatic or economic, for Pyongyang without the "verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of its nuclear program.

It has ruled out a non-aggression pact with North Korea, a demand Pyongyang repeated Wednesday, but it has left open the prospect of less-formal written security guarantees.