Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her South Korean counterpart yesterday as the Bush administration urged North Korea's neighbors not to provide incentives to the government in Pyongyang to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear programs.
North Korea last week pulled out of the talks and officially announced it possessed nuclear weapons, leaving the United States scrambling for ways to step up pressure to get the negotiating process on track.
"We and others agree that North Korea is making a mistake by staying away. We and others agree that one should not reward that mistake," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters after Rice met with Ban Ki Moon, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs and trade.
"We would expect people to look at the various things they are doing and try to use them to encourage North Korea to return to the talks," Boucher said.
U.S. officials are still trying to determine a strategy for dealing with the unexpected North Korean announcement. Much of the diplomatic activity is aimed at ensuring unity among the five partners in the talks, which also include China, Russia and Japan. Rice also spoke by phone on Saturday with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, while Ban was in Washington on a previously scheduled visit.
Lower-level officials from South Korea, Tokyo and the United States also are expected to meet shortly to coordinate tactics.
Some U.S. officials believe the moment is ripe to try to persuade its partners to take the North Korean issue to the U.N. Security Council. But a senior South Korean official who attended the meeting with Rice said that the issue did not come up in the meeting with her or other U.S. officials, and that the two officials did not delve deeply into the details of bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table.
Both South Korea and China in the past have pressed the Bush administration to be more flexible in the talks, and China has even provided monetary payments and a promise of a glass factory to induce Pyongyang to come to the sessions. But a U.S. official said the Chinese have indicated they are "not thinking along those lines" at this point.
Another U.S. official said the Chinese said they were pleased by the measured response by the United States thus far but added that they were angry and upset at the North Korean behavior.
South Korean officials said they are not convinced North Korea has nuclear weapons, and Ban told reporters after meeting with Rice that he believed North Korea's statement was a tactic intended to win more concessions. "With this increased and intensified diplomatic efforts, I am confident that in the end North Koreans will come back to dialogue table," he said.
South Korea and China, which border North Korea, have been reluctant in the past to increase pressure on North Korea because they fear a collapse of the government would destabilize the region.