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U.S. says North Korea may be ready to talk

The U.S. administration thinks that North Korea may be interested in resuming the six-way talks on the nation’s nuclear program, although Pyongyang is expected to wait until after President Bush begins his second term, a senior official said Friday.
/ Source: NBC News

The U.S. administration thinks that North Korea may be interested in resuming the six-way talks on the nation’s nuclear program, although Pyongyang is expected to wait until after President Bush begins his second term, U.S. officials said Friday.

The United States has "heard from others that North Korea is interested in coming back," a senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The timing is not there yet."

The first step would not involve senior diplomats but instead would bring together officials at a lower, working level, according to the United States.

In all likelihood, the North Koreans want to see the new Cabinet in place before discussions, the senior official said.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, the point person for U.S. diplomacy, is stepping down and his replacement, National Security Adviser Condeleeza Rice, still needs to be confirmed by the Senate.

Rice on Friday paid her first visit to the State Department since Bush announced her nomination.

Different message?
The apparent optimism within the State Department seemed to contradict a statement attributed only hours earlier to Washington’s special envoy on North Korea, Joseph DeTrani.

Citing an unnamed Japanese government source, Reuters reported that DeTrani got an “unfavorable” response to the idea of multilateral talks when U.S. and North Korean officials met in New York recently.

The source said North Korea believed Washington was sticking to its “hostile” policy toward Pyongyang, the main reason North Korea has given for refusing to abandon its nuclear programs.

At a State Department press briefing last week, spokesman Adam Ereli confirmed DeTrani met North Koreans to “pass a message” to them about Washington’s desire for an early resumption of talks.

Ereli declined to discuss the North Korean response. “What I will tell you is this: that publicly North Korea has committed to coming back to six-party talks.  They did that at the last round. And that is their public position.”

Separately, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima said Friday that Tokyo had urged North Korea to return to six-party talks but had received no reply.

“There is no reason for North Korea to delay the resumption of the six-party talks because the U.S. presidential election is over,” Takashima said.

Refuting a scholar
Meantime, the State Department’s Ereli on Friday strongly refuted a claim made by noted North Korea scholar Selig Harrison that the United States has exaggerated the threat and intelligence on Pyongyang’s uranium enrichment. 

Saying Harrison's claims were wrong, Ereli cited what he described as "clear evidence" of North Korean uranium-enrichment efforts since the late 1990s.

The spokesman linked the North Korean program to covert weapons program and said that the North Koreans confirmed U.S. intelligence by acknowledging a secret uranium enrichment program to U.S. negotiators in 2002.

“So I think that it's not a question, as Dr. Harrison suggests, of us exaggerating something, but rather the case of there being a multitude of clear and persuasive evidence that North Korea itself has acknowledged," he said.

Selig, in an article for the Dec. 17 issue of Foreign Affairs, said that by failing to distinguish between civilian and military uranium-enrichment capabilities, Washington greatly complicated the already complex efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

“Relying on sketchy data, the Bush administration presented a worst-case scenario as an incontrovertible truth and distorted its intelligence on North Korea (much as it did on Iraq), seriously exaggerating the danger that Pyongyang is secretly making uranium-based nuclear weapons,” he said.

Harrison, the director of the Asia Program and chairman of the Task Force on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, said the Bush administration hoped to scare Japan and South Korea away from taking a conciliatory approach toward Pyongyang.

Harrison’s article was posted on Foreign Affairs’ Web site Friday.

Clandestine program
A new nuclear crisis flared on the Korean Peninsula in late 2002 when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly on a visit to Pyongyang accused North Korea of running a clandestine program to enrich uranium.

Washington punished North Korea by cutting off free oil shipments it promised under a 1994 nuclear arms control agreement that froze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program using reprocessed plutonium, another means to create an atomic bomb.

Pyongyang retaliated, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting its plutonium facilities. It has since denied having a uranium program and accused Washington of “cooking up” the allegation.

The United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of six-nation talks since last year to find a way of eliminating whatever nuclear facilities North Korea might have. No breakthroughs have been made.

Since the new nuclear crisis flared, North Korea is believed to have reprocessed enough of its spent fuel rods to extract plutonium for at least two or three bombs.