The United States Tuesday rejected North Korea's demand that its return to talks sponsored by China on its nuclear program be contingent on energy aid and other concessions. The State Department called on Pyongyang to drop preconditions and return to the six-party talks on the issue as soon as possible.
The North Korean demand, carried by its official news media, came as something of a surprise to U.S. diplomats who have been nurturing hopes for a resumption of the Beijing talks before the end of the year.
Pyongyang said it would not return to the talks unless the United State accepted, in advance, a so-called "first-phase" deal under which North Korea would freeze its nuclear activities in exchange for energy aid and a variety of other concessions, including removal of that country from the U.S. list of state supporters of terrorism.
North Korea said its participation in new talks "entirely depends" on such an arrangement.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the objective of the diplomatic exercise is not a freeze, but a verifiable end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program to be coupled with security assurances for Pyongyang.
He reiterated the Bush administration's stand that Pyongyang should get no reward for violating international nuclear commitments, and he called on North Korea to drop pre-conditions and join the United States and the other parties in a new round of talks at the earliest possible date.
"Our objective is the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program," he said. "In that context, we've also said that we're willing to document multi-lateral security assurances for North Korea. Discussion of these matters can take place in the talks themselves. We call on North Korea to drop its pre-conditions to the talks and to join the other parties as soon as possible."
China hosted an initial round of the nuclear talks in August, bringing together U.S. and North Korean diplomats along with those from South Korea, Japan and Russia.
U.S. officials say they are still awaiting a North Korean response to a proposed statement of principles for a new round of talks drafted by the United States, Japan and South Korea and conveyed to Pyongyang by China earlier this week.
It is understood to outline a program of "coordinated" steps under which North Korea would disarm and be given security guarantees, though officials here say the details would be left for the negotiations themselves.
North Korea has said any disarmament action it might take should be simultaneous with its receipt of political and economic benefits.