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US Maintains Firm Stance in Preparation for N. Korean Talks - 2004-02-23


The United States is maintaining a firm stance as it prepares for the second round of multiparty talks with North Korea, opening Wednesday in Beijing. U.S. officials say Pyongyang must fully disclose and dismantle two separate nuclear programs if the talks are to progress.

The United States and its Asia-Pacific partners meet with North Korea from Wednesday in Beijing to try to peacefully halt the communist state's nuclear weapons programs.

Japan, a key U.S. ally, said Monday it would stand firmly with Washington's position when they join Russia, South Korea and China at the upcoming meeting.

Japanese government Spokesman Yasuo Fukuda says Japan, the United States and the other three nations will seek the complete dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton met with Japanese officials in Tokyo last week on how to achieve that. "What we would like to see is the strategic decision by Korea, North Korea, that it is going to give up its nuclear weapons program and all of its nuclear weapons programs," says Mr. Bolton. "And what follows from that will have to depend on the attitude that North Korea brings."

The United States and its allies say North Korea must prove it has eliminated not only its plutonium-based weapons program, which Pyongyang has already acknowledged, but also its alleged development of highly enriched uranium, or HEU.

U.S. officials say North Korea admitted to the alleged HEU program in October 2002 after they confronted Pyongyang with intelligence reports. Pyongyang has never publicly admitted to the program, which would violate a 1994 accord with Washington. Both sides say there is no basis of trust going into this next round of talks.

In the past 16 months, North Korea has restarted its Yongbyon nuclear facility - capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea has also openly declared it has a right to produce what it calls a "nuclear deterrent" to the "hostile policy" of the United States. U.S. intelligence believes Pyongyang now has between one and eight nuclear weapons.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Saturday that Washington will continue to use "tough-minded diplomacy" at the upcoming round, and warned Pyongyang that moving forward with its twin nuclear programs would be a "sure way to calamity."

The first round of talks on the nuclear dispute took place last August in the Chinese capital. But it ended only with a vague promise to hold more discussions. Over the last six months, there were intensive diplomatic efforts to bring about the second round. But disagreements between North Korea and the United States got in the way.

Pyongyang offered to "freeze" its nuclear program, but only if the United States simultaneously provided it with a security guarantee, energy aid and other concessions. Washington rejected that offer, demanding first a permanent and verifiable end to North Korea's nuclear programs.

Many analysts have low expectations for these talks. But North Korea expert Daniel Pinkston of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, says negotiations are still a step in the right direction. "It is a very difficult process and I do not expect the huge breakthrough at the next talks although I do not think it is impossible," he says. "But one of the main reasons I remain hopeful is that even if there is just agreement or there is no real quick rapid progress at these meetings, the groups, the parties seem to realize that there is no real better alternative."

Mr. Pinkston also notes this round of talks comes as Washington is intensifying efforts to defeat terrorism and nuclear-proliferation around the world. He and other experts say U.S. negotiators could bring up Libya's recent abandonment of its nuclear ambitions in exchange for incentives - as a way to encourage North Korea to do the same.

But Washington could also stick with the hard line following Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan's recent confession that he supplied nuclear expertise to North Korea - a statement the North has angrily denied.