Secretary of State Colin L. Powell held out the prospect yesterday of a settlement with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs that would include formal assurances the United States has no plans to attack the communist state.
"We have made it clear we have no aggressive intent," Powell said, one day after the Bush administration said it is willing to have face-to-face talks with the government in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. "Apparently, they want something more than a passing statement."
U.S. allies in the region, especially South Korea, and Russia have pressed the administration to consider offering some form of security guarantee to North Korea to persuade it to reverse its decision to restart its nuclear weapons programs. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov said yesterday that instead of isolating North Korea, which he called "an erroneous approach," Washington should provide the security guarantee sought by Pyongyang.
Powell's remarks, in an interview at the State Department, suggested that the administration has begun to heed this concern, marking a further evolution in the U.S. strategy to persuade North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.
Asked whether there is a formula that offers more than President Bush's repeated statements that the administration will not invade North Korea and North Korea's desire for a nonaggression pact with the United States, Powell replied: "You've just bounded a problem. That's what diplomacy is about."
As part of the administration's stepped-up diplomatic efforts, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice met yesterday for 40 minutes at the White House with her South Korean counterpart, Yim Sung Joon, in an effort to mend some of the strains between Washington and Seoul over how to respond to North Korea's actions. A senior South Korean diplomat indicated afterward that the administration's offer of direct talks, but no negotiations on weapons programs, was a troubling gamble. "We hope North Korea takes the message right," he said.
Powell emphasized that, at the talks, the administration would continue to insist that North Korea live up to prior agreements, which include ending its efforts to build nuclear weapons. "We're not going to pay for this football again" and enter into a new agreement with North Korea over its nuclear weapons programs, he said. But he pointed to statements, communiques and a letter issued by President Bill Clinton during the 1994 negotiations "that gave the DPRK [North Korea] some assurances [on security] that they at least accepted at that time." Those "assurances" led to a freeze of North Korea's plutonium facility, which was recently reopened.
While many senior administration officials have been critical of Clinton's 1994 deal, saying it allowed an inevitable problem to fester, Powell lauded what is known as the Agreed Framework. "The previous administration I give great credit to for freezing that plutonium site," he said. "Lots of nuclear weapons were not made because of the Agreed Framework and the work of President Clinton and his team."
Although the administration subtly shifted its position on direct talks in an effort to dampen the atmosphere of crisis regarding North Korea as the U.S. government proceeds with plans for a possible war with Iraq, North Korea responded yesterday with more invective. "The 'nuclear issue' that renders the situation on the Korean peninsula strained is a product of the U.S. strategy to dominate the world [and] bring a holocaust of a nuclear war to the Korean nation," the government's KCNA news agency said.
In the past month, the confrontation threatened to spiral out of control as Pyongyang took increasingly provocative steps in response to the U.S. decision to suspend fuel oil shipments -- after the administration discovered a clandestine nuclear project in North Korea -- and to briefly seize a ship carrying North Korean missiles bound for Yemen. North Korea evicted international weapons inspectors and restarted a plutonium reactor that had been shuttered as part of the 1994 accord, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency on Monday to give Pyongyang "one last chance" before referring the matter to the United Nations Security Council.
U.S. officials dismissed yesterday's statement by North Korea, saying that it usually takes several days for the government there to respond to a new diplomatic tack. "The ball is in their court," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said.
Powell conceded that there are differences between the United States and other powers in the region -- Russia, China, South Korea and Japan -- over how to proceed with the next round of diplomacy. "There are different approaches about this: Should you talk? When should you talk? Would you negotiate? What do you put on the table?" he said. "Those are all issues that are worth debating. But we have made it clear from the very beginning that we were keeping an open mind."
Powell stressed "we have a number of channels we're using" to communicate with the North Koreans and "they hear what we're saying." An administration official described these indirect talks as including quasi-official trips to North Korea by former government officials and meetings between low-level officials in unofficial venues, such as Hong Kong.
North Korea has indicated through these indirect talks that it wants the United States to send a relatively senior official, higher than an assistant secretary of state, to begin formal discussions, the official added.