N. Korea Tells Chinese Envoy It Is Open to Nuclear Talks

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 19, 2009

TOKYO, Sept. 18 -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Il told a Chinese diplomat Friday that his government is willing to discuss its nuclear program in "bilateral or multilateral" meetings, China's official news agency said.

North Korea walked away from stalled six-nation nuclear talks in the spring, during a time of stepped-up belligerence in which it launched missiles, conducted an underground nuclear test and threatened war with South Korea. Since August, however, the unpredictable communist state has reversed course, releasing several detained foreign nationals, including two U.S. journalists, and opening doors to trade with South Korea.

Kim's statement is potentially the most significant move in the North's recent charm offensive. It could revive Beijing-based nuclear negotiations between the two Koreas, China, the United States, Russia and Japan.

But Kim's words also fit a pattern of behavior in which North Korea precipitates an international security crisis and then, months or years later, moves to resolve it, usually in return for aid and other benefits.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it would hold bilateral discussions with the North Koreans only if they returned to the six-party talks, which began in 2003 and had resulted in North Korean promises to disable and ultimately get rid of its nuclear weapons program in return for economic and diplomatic concessions.

U.S. officials say they are well aware of North Korea's practice of behaving badly, changing course and then seeking rewards from the international community. In May, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned North Korea, "As the expression goes in the United States, 'I am tired of buying the same horse twice.' "

On Friday, the official New China News Agency quoted Kim as telling a special envoy sent by Chinese President Hu Jintao, "North Korea would like to solve relevant issues through bilateral and multilateral talks."

The news agency also quoted Kim as saying that North Korea would "maintain its goal of denuclearization and make efforts for the protection of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula."

The statement was an about-face from what North Korea had said in April, after the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned Pyongyang's launch of a long-range missile. Then, North Korea ordered U.N. nuclear inspectors out of the country, vowed it would restart its plutonium factory and pledged to never again participate in the six-country nuclear negotiations.

In April, Pyongyang also said the multilateral talks had "turned into a platform" for forcing the North to disarm and for bringing down its system of government.

The Chinese envoy, Dai Bingguo, traveled to Pyongyang this week as part of an effort to persuade North Korea to return to the six-party talks. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is expected to travel to North Korea next month to discuss the nuclear issue.

China, North Korea's closest ally and primary economic benefactor, has been unusually outspoken this year about its displeasure with Kim's government for detonating a nuclear device in May and for walking out of the denuclearization talks.

In a letter that China's envoy handed to Kim, the news agency said, Hu reiterated Beijing's stance that the Korean Peninsula should be denuclearized and said China will spare no effort to work with North Korea to realize that goal.

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