The Bush administration does not yet consider a 1994 agreement with North Korea dead and may be open to continuing some aspects of the accord, including regular oil deliveries to Pyongyang, a senior State Department official said today.
"I have not yet used the four-letter word -- [and] have no plans to do so, at least at this time. No decision has been made," said the official, who traveled to this resort in Baja California with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for a meeting of the 21-member Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
The comments presented a much less firm position than that offered in recent days in Washington, where senior administration officials have said that North Korea's stated nullification of the agreement and revelations about a secret nuclear weapons program have effectively killed it.
The official here emphasized that the administration is coordinating its response to the North Korean situation with South Korea, Japan and China, all of which have advocated dialogue with the North Koreans. President Bush, who meets Friday at his Crawford, Tex., ranch with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, will arrive here Saturday and hold trilateral talks with the South Korean president, Kim Dae Jung, and the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi.
The Bush administration has taken different stands on weapons of mass destruction in North Korea and Iraq, although it has labeled both countries part of an "axis of evil." Bush has vowed to take unilateral military action against Iraq if other countries cannot be persuaded to help make sure it has no weapons of mass destruction, but he has emphasized diplomacy in dealing with North Korea.
Under the 1994 bilateral accord, North Korea agreed to suspend operation of nuclear reactors capable of producing weapons-grade material and to place plutonium already produced under international safeguards. In return, the United States agreed, among other things, to supply Pyongyang with regular shipments of fuel oil. Under a separate accord, Japan, South Korea and the United States agreed to construct two light-water reactors to generate electricity.
North Korea admitted the secret nuclear program and declared the agreement null, at a meeting in Pyongyang this month with Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly.
The administration has said that it is not interested in negotiating with North Korea until the newly revealed weapons program is verifiably dismantled. But the senior State Department official said today that the administration had not ruled out further dialogue with Pyongyang.
"If you substitute the word negotiations for dialogue, I think I would be firmer on it," he said. "We bought that horse one time before, in 1994. We painstakingly negotiated an agreement, in which North Korea pledged that there would be no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.
"I'm not ruling out direct contact or direct communications with the North Koreans," he said, noting that the two governments have an established channel through their U.N. representatives in New York. "If they call us, we'll listen, and I hope vice versa. But that's not negotiating."
He said the administration had not decided whether to deliver the next scheduled oil shipment, in about a month. The most recent shipment was delivered to North Korea last Friday.
Although the annual APEC summit is designed to concentrate on shared economic concerns, Bush and Powell are using their meetings here to push for progress on Iraq and North Korea. China and Russia, both APEC members, also are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, which is considering a U.S. resolution on Iraq this week.
Russia has objected to a number of provisions in the resolution, and Bush's hopes of gaining President Vladimir Putin's cooperation during a scheduled private lunch on Saturday were dashed today when Putin canceled his trip to deal with the hostage crisis in Moscow. Powell met today with his Russian counterpart, Igor Ivanov, and he has also held talks with the foreign ministers of Mexico and Singapore, which are also Security Council members.
Powell also met this morning with South Korea's foreign minister, Choi Sung Hong, after which a senior administration official said they agreed that the North Korean situation "is very serious, and it should be handled peacefully." A South Korean official told reporters after the meeting that his government "was hoping to resolve the nuclear problem through dialogue" and expressed hopes that the United States was willing to maintain the 1994 agreement.
Kelly, to whom the North Koreans revealed the secret program for enriching uranium to weapon's grade, denied reports from Seoul that his initial account to the South Korean government on the revelations had been incomplete.