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US Official Says Only Modest Progress Expected at North Korean Nuclear Talks - 2004-02-20

A senior Bush administration official said Thursday the United States is going into the next round of Chinese-brokered six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program with modest expectations. The talks, bringing together the United States, Russia, Japan, China and North and South Korea resume next Wednesday in Beijing.

The senior official says the verifiable and irreversible halt to the North Korean nuclear program being sought by the United States would be a national strategic decision for Pyongyang, that is hardly likely to be made by the foreign ministry officials it will send to Beijing.

But he says the Bush administration is nonetheless hopeful that the new round of six-party talks, expected to last three days, will yield something that begins to get the process moving, in contrast to the inconclusive round in the Chinese capital held last August.

At a briefing for diplomatic reporters here, the senior official, who declined to be further identified, said there have been a number of developments since August that could positively impact the new round.

These include Libya's decision to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, and President Bush's statement in Bangkok last October that the United States is ready to be part of written multi-lateral assurances for North Korea's security in the context of its nuclear disarmament.

But on the negative side, the official said, has been North Korea's denial in recent months that it has a uranium enrichment program, even though officials in Pyongyang are said to have admitted this during a pivotal visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in October 2002.

At a news briefing Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said a full disclosure by North Korea of all its nuclear activities is a basic requirement, if Pyongyang is to receive the security guarantees or other benefits that might flow from an agreement.

"It is important to make progress in this round that we identify the activities and we start talking about how to eliminate them in a verifiable and irreversible manner," he said. "The United States has made clear that we're willing to do our part in terms of providing, along with the other governments involved, the security assurances so that North Korea can do that without feeling threatened. But if we're going to make progress in this round, the parties need to come to the table with an open and honest attitude about the activities, and a willingness to discuss how those goals can be achieved."

The senior official who spoke here said U.S. expectations for the next round were neither high nor low, and that it might not even produce a final statement, if haggling over its wording precluded any real advancement of the process.

He said the U.S. team in Beijing, to be led again by Mr. Kelly, is willing to have separate talks with the North Koreans on the sidelines of the meeting but said any negotiating will be in the six-party format.

He also said the United States is willing to discuss other issues with North Korea, including human rights, its ballistic missile program, and the so-called "bold approach" of increased U.S. aid and diplomatic recognition to that country which the Bush administration had been considering before the nuclear crisis erupted in 2002.

Mr. Kelly and an inter-agency team of other U.S. officials are due to leave Washington this weekend and will hold talks with Japanese and South Korean negotiators in Seoul before heading to Beijing for the six-party talks.