The United States yesterday swiftly rejected a reported demand from North Korea that it conduct one-on-one talks with the reclusive communist state as a price for restarting negotiations on dismantling its nuclear programs. U.S. officials held firm to their position that the talks must include Pyongyang's neighbors as they intensified diplomatic efforts to persuade North Korea to return to the bargaining table.
"It's not an issue between North Korea and the United States," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "It's a regional issue."
South Korean protesters in Seoul denounce North Korea's possession of nuclear arms. Pyongyang is said to seek one-on-one talks with Washington.
(Kim Kyung Hoon -- Reuters)
_____White House Reaction_____
Video: The Washington Post's Peter Baker discusses the White House's rejection of North Korea's proposed bilateral discussion on nuclear arms.
An overview of North Korea's current nuclear and missile capabilities and a chronology of events and diplomacy since 2001.
_____N. Korea's Statement_____
Full Text: The full statement by North Korea's foreign ministry on its nuclear program, as released in English by the North Korean news agency KCNA.
The request for direct talks, made by a senior member of North Korea's U.N. delegation in an interview with a South Korean newspaper, suggested Pyongyang remains willing to discuss scrapping its untested nuclear arsenal under the right terms, despite its "indefinite" withdrawal Thursday from the six-nation talks hosted by China.
U.S. officials have met with North Korean officials on the sidelines of the six-nation sessions for discussions lasting more than two hours, but North Korea's request for direct talks appears to be aimed at trying to split the fragile unity of its bargaining partners. In the past, China and South Korea have been sympathetic to North Korea's claims that the United States has not bargained in good faith.
While U.S. officials are still debating how to respond, "everyone agrees that now is the time to turn up the pressure on China and South Korea," a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
Vice President Cheney met yesterday with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon in a previously scheduled meeting and he questioned Ban on the budding economic relations between North and South Korea, according to a South Korean official who attended the meeting. Ban told Cheney that South Korea is reviewing a North Korean request for 500,000 tons of fertilizer and Cheney did not request that trade between the countries be halted, the official added.
Throughout the two years of talks, North Korea has sought to win upfront, direct benefits from the United States as a condition for agreeing to end its nuclear programs. Despite pleas from South Korea, the Bush administration has refused even symbolic gestures until North Korea gives up its programs and its claims are verified by U.S. intelligence.
The White House has supported efforts by its allies to provide energy assistance if North Korea declares it will end its programs. Once North Korea's claims have been verified, the administration has indicated, it would take other steps, such as joining in a multilateral guarantee of North Korea's security, that could ultimately result in a restoration of relations. But U.S. officials have been purposely vague about the details.
Now, in the wake of North Korea's declaration that it possesses nuclear weapons, pressure may mount on the United States to demonstrate greater flexibility in the talks. U.S. officials have said they will not modify their offer, presented last June, until North Korea formally makes a counteroffer.
Bush administration officials say they will not conduct bilateral negotiations because they do not want to repeat the experience of the Clinton administration. In 1994, President Bill Clinton struck a deal with North Korea that froze its nuclear programs, but in 2002, President Bush accused North Korea of violating it.
The demand for a direct dialogue with the United States represents a return to the negotiating position that North Korea staked out before China persuaded it to join the multilateral talks that began in August 2003. The new statement from North Korea appeared to bolster the assessment of many officials in the region that Pyongyang's surprise announcement Thursday was a gambit to win additional economic and diplomatic concessions from Washington and its allies.
"We will return to the six-nation talks when we see a reason to do so and the conditions are ripe," Han Sung Ryol, deputy chief of Pyongyang's U.N. mission, told Seoul's Hankyoreh newspaper Thursday in New York. "If the United States moves to have direct dialogue with us, we can take that as a signal that the United States is changing its hostile policy toward us."
"We have no other option but to regard the United States' refusal to have direct dialogue with us as an intention not to recognize us and to eliminate our system," Han was also quoted as saying.
But in a subsequent interview, Han appeared to backtrack, telling Associated Press Television News, "No, we do not ask for bilateral talks." He said the key issue for North Korea is whether Washington plans to attack North Korea.