By Glenn Kessler and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 20, 2005
After a public appeal from North Korea, a State Department envoy met with North Korean officials at the United Nations last week to reiterate Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent statement that the Bush administration recognizes the reclusive country's sovereignty, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The secret meeting, the first such back-channel communication in five months, was a U.S. attempt to prod North Korea back to six-nation disarmament talks, after similar efforts by such allies as China and South Korea. The North Korean officials did not respond, except to say they would pass the message to leaders in Pyongyang, the capital, but North Korea appeared to dismiss the rare direct assurances.
"U.S. recognition of sovereignty is fake," the official KCNA news service quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry official as saying.
The issue is important to the government, which has repeatedly said it is under threat of attack by the United States and frequently seeks reassurances of its status as an equal power.
Rice sent Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani, the U.S. special envoy to North Korea on disarmament talks, to New York last Friday after officials in Pyongyang indicated in a statement they wanted to set up a meeting with U.S. officials to confirm the U.S. position, a senior administration official familiar with the talks said. KCNA hinted that Pyongyang might be willing to return to the negotiating table if it could determine whether Rice's recent statements were sincere.
Rice decided that "this is a time of a lot of escalation, and perhaps it was not a bad time to pass the message directly," the administration official added, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the topic.
During a trip to Asia in March, Rice made a speech in Japan in which she referred to North Korea as a sovereign state-- a phrase intended to placate North Korea. In February, after she called North Korea an "outpost of tyranny," Pyongyang announced it was a nuclear-weapons state and refused to return to talks because of the administration's "hostile policy."
But Asian diplomats said Rice's attempt in Japan to soothe North Korean concerns was spoiled when President Bush during a recent news conference denounced the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, as a "tyrant" and a "dangerous person" who ran "concentration camps." North Korea fired back that Bush was a "half-baked man" and a "philistine" who had "turned the world into a sea of blood."
In last Friday's meeting, DeTrani and Jim Foster, who heads the State Department's Office of Korean Affairs, met with North Korea's ambassador to the United Nations, Pak Gil Yon, and his deputy, Han Song Ryol. The New York channel has been used by both sides to exchange messages and official positions, but U.S. officials stressed it was not a negotiating forum.
DeTrani repeated a series of recent statements by Rice -- that the United States recognized North Korea as a sovereign state, that it had no intention to attack or invade and that Washington would agree to have "direct contacts" with North Korea during six-nation talks, the official said.
Direct contacts is a euphemism for the bilateral discussions that have taken place on the sidelines of each round of the six-party talks, which involve the United States, China, Russia, Japan and North and South Korea. Washington has refused to hold direct negotiations with North Korea outside the six-nation framework, even though the other four nations have done so.
State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher described the U.S.-North Korean encounter as the "normal kind of meeting that we've had from time to time." Briefing reporters, he added: "No offense to you, but as we make statements they get written up in various ways in different news media. The North Korean probably read different things about what our policy is or is not."
As the first anniversary of the last round of the six-party talks approaches, Asian fears of a possible nuclear test by North Korea are rising. Some diplomats have suggested that a failure by North Korea to return to negotiations by the end of June might mean tougher tactics, such as economic sanctions or referral to the U.N. Security Council, by the United States and Japan. South Korea and China have resisted increasing pressure on North Korea.
After four days of bilateral talks with North Korea this week, South Korea agreed to begin shipping 200,000 tons of fertilizer to the North. The two sides also agreed to resume higher-level ministerial talks in Seoul on June 21. Such talks have been stalled since the last round in May 2004
South Korea pressed the Pyongyang government to return to the bargaining table and formally recognize the seriousness of the crisis over its declared nuclear weapons arsenal. But the talks between the two Koreas concluded yesterday with North Korea making no such promises. The two sides instead agreed to a less specific pledge "to improve South-North relations and to work for peace on the Korean peninsula."
In comments to foreign diplomats gathered at South Korea's presidential palace on Thursday, President Roh Moo Hyun issued an impassioned call for "peace" and to avoid war "no matter what happens."
Faiola reported from Tokyo. Correspondent Joohee Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.