A Bush administration official will travel to Beijing next week for talks with North Korea, U.S. and Japanese officials said last night.
The apparent breakthrough in a stalemate that began last October, when the administration confronted Pyongyang with evidence that it had a secret nuclear weapons program, came after North Korea last weekend dropped its insistence on one-to-one negotiations with the United States, and China agreed to participate both in the sessions and as host.
The administration had said it would talk to North Korea only in the context of multilateral negotiations with all the countries in the region, including China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. But China and the others criticized President Bush for refusing direct talks. The administration had said it would meet privately with the North Koreans in the context of a larger gathering. China's participation apparently meets that criterion.
"We've been working this very subtly . . . in a way that we think is going to be effective," a senior administration official said. "There has never been any fear of talking with the North Koreans, but the idea you would just rush into bilateral talks would bring you back to where you were in 1994."
That marked the start of an arms control agreement President Bill Clinton made with Pyongyang, which the Bush administration said resulted in a long-undetected North Korean program to start a uranium enrichment program to produce weapons-grade fuel.
After the United States revealed knowledge of the program to the North Koreans last October, the Koreans ejected nuclear weapons inspectors and moved to restart a plutonium reactor that had been shut down under the Clinton agreement. North Korea also became the first country to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, although administration officials said they have seen no evidence yet that the reopened plant had begun reprocessing plutonium for weapons.
The CIA has said that North Korea may have produced "one or two" nuclear weapons from weapons-grade material from that plant. The administration has not said whether it believes that the program it discovered involving uranium enrichment, a much slower process that it believes was started several years ago, has produced any weapons material.
The scheduled meeting, which was first reported in early editions of today's New York Times, marks a major breakthrough for Bush and possible vindication of the administration's belief that its aggressive campaign in Iraq would send a message to other intransigent states.
North Korea and Iraq, along with Iran, were branded part of an "axis of evil" by Bush in his State of the Union speech last year.
The U.S. delegation is to be led by James A. Kelly, the assistant secretary of state who held the contentious meeting with Pyongyang last October. South Korea, Japan and Russia are not scheduled to attend the talks. The Times said China had hoped to keep the meeting secret.
The administration official said that "we've been working with other countries in the region, particularly with China, and also with the Russians" to make the meeting happen. White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice traveled to Moscow 10 days ago for private meetings with Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin.
Intensified discussions with Beijing and Moscow followed weeks of confrontation with and over North Korea, as Pyongyang canceled scheduled talks with Seoul and China blocked an effort to bring the North Korean situation before the U.N. Security Council.
In a news conference yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the administration had "followed up" on North Korea's announcement last weekend.
"I'm not prepared to announce anything today with respect to meetings, attendance levels, what is multilateral and how best to get started and at what level," Powell said. "The one thing that is absolutely clear, is that at whatever level it starts, and with whatever attendance, it has to ultimately encompass the views and thoughts of all the neighbors in the region."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters yesterday that his government is "open to any plan that is in the interest of a peaceful solution."
"We admire the North Korean side's advocacy for dialogue to resolve the issue," he said.
A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said: "We understand that South Korea and Japan will participate in the talks in the future. We believe that is also the understanding on the part of the U.S. We will watch how this will develop."
Correspondent Doug Struck in Tokyo contributed to this report.