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US Officials Say Allies Have Unified Front on Negotiating with North Korea

The U.S. ambassador to South Korea says there is a united front among the five countries negotiating with North Korea on its nuclear program, despite suggestions from China, South Korea and Japan that the United States be more flexible or creative in the negotiations.

At a recent talk in Washington, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Christopher Hill, said the U.S. and South Korean governments agree on how to deal with North Korea.

"I would say that, despite what many people thought, perhaps only months ago, we are in sync with the [South] Koreans on how to address this issue," said Christopher Hill. "First of all, there is absolute support for the notion of the six-party process, for the notion that this is an issue that needs to be addressed multilaterally."

Three rounds of six-party talks, aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis, have taken place since August 2003. Pyongyang refused to attend a fourth round, which had been scheduled for September. The other parties to the talks are Russia, Japan and China.

Parallel to the six-party talks, South Korea has been holding bilateral meetings with the communist North, aimed at reducing tensions between them.

Speaking at an event sponsored by the Asia Society and the Woodrow Wilson Center, Ambassador Hill said Washington understands South Korea's desire to engage its neighbor to the north. But he said the five nations negotiating with Pyongyang agree that the issue of most concern is the complete and verifiable dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programs. He said that unity is necessary to ensure that North Korea gets a clear message.

"So, we need to understand that, in some cases, South Korea will have a different approach to a neighbor that's right there, very present," he said. "But I think we also should, in understanding that, we need to work with them [South Korea]. We need to make sure the North Koreans are not getting conflicting signals, and that, once again, we are able to present an approach to the North Koreans that they're not going to see a better deal in the future."

One of Seoul's concerns with its northern neighbor has been possible instability in the North Korean government. And, at a separate Washington conference, South Korea's ambassador to the United States, Han Sung Joo, referred to another relatively recent development that could have a destabilizing effect.

"And that is the North Korean refugees issue, which are becoming more serious and complicated, as things go on," said Han Sung Joo.

There have been several instances in recent months of North Korean refugees, mostly in China, sneaking into third country embassies and demanding asylum in South Korea.

Ambassador Han said he thinks improving relations between the two Koreas can help end the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but are not enough in themselves. He says Pyongyang is suspicious of the United States, militarily, economically and politically. But he acknowledges that that may not be the only reason Pyongyang is resistant to U.S. pressure.

"I don't know whether North Korea is just using this as an excuse, or it reflects a real and genuine concern and insecurity on the part of North Korea," he said. "I think, probably the closest answer to that question would be both elements of these. But North Korea is not short of excuses not to come to the six-party meeting."

A Japanese government official, who spoke to reporters in Washington on background, says the next round of six-party talks needs to be convened as soon as possible. He said his country, the United States and South Korea need to send a unified message to Pyongyang, and make sure that China shares the same goal.

The Japanese official said other serious concerns for Tokyo include the development of North Korean missiles, which could deliver nuclear warheads to Japan, as well as the controversial issue of Japanese who were abducted by North Korea decades ago.

North Korea is known to have a plutonium-based program that could enable it to make nuclear weapons. Two years ago, the United States said Pyongyang acknowledged another program to develop nuclear weapons from highly enriched uranium, or HEU.

U.S. Ambassador Hill says this is another subject on which the five negotiating partners agree.

"I think among the five, there's certainly consensus that they [North Korea] have a program, an H.E.U. program," said Christopher Hill. "The issue, of course, comes up - how far along is the program, which is more difficult to assess. But I think, among the five, there is an understanding that, indeed, when you connect the dots [put everything together], it's clear that the North Koreans have such a program."

The Japanese official said North Korea has never acknowledged a uranium program to his country, but that Tokyo is, in his words, "sufficiently comfortable" with the U.S. position.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun will discuss the North Korean nuclear issue in detail during a meeting Friday, in Japan.