The Bush administration's decision to meet with North Korean representatives next week in Beijing, a significant retreat from its insistence that it would talk to Pyongyang only in the presence of officials from Japan, South Korea and China, was made in response to China's increasingly cooperative role in the North Korean crisis, senior administration officials said yesterday.
The administration has also dropped its demand that North Korea first dismantle its illegal uranium enrichment program. President Bush, said a top Japanese official who helped pave the way for the meeting, "decided to go ahead with discussions without any preset conditions."
China's effort to resolve the six-month impasse over Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program came in an offer last month to host an initial tripartite meeting with the United States and North Korea, excluding South Korea and Japan, U.S officials said. China also obtained North Korea's agreement to drop its own demand for a one-on-one meeting with the United States. The Chinese will be present at all sessions of next week's talks, the officials said.
"We decided to go ahead with it because China had taken such a major role in setting it up," a senior administration official said. "After months of our telling them that they had to do more, they finally came up with this. It wasn't perfect, but it represented much more substantial involvement by them than anything they had done before."
During several weeks of high-level conversations, the substance of which was kept secret until details emerged Tuesday, Washington and Beijing worked to talk their Asian partners into the deal. A U.S. delegation headed by James A. Kelly, assistant secretary of state for Asia, will likely arrive in Beijing next Wednesday for as many as three days of talks, officials said.
U.S. officials said yesterday that China's presence satisfied Bush's demand that any meeting with North Korea be "multilateral." They said there will be no substantive discussion of Pyongyang's weapons program until South Korea and Japan, and possibly Russia, are represented at subsequent meetings. "That's one reason why I would characterize this as exchanging views rather than a negotiation," one official said.
The other reason, the official said, is North Korea's ongoing failure to begin dismantling its enrichment program. The standoff began in October, when the administration first confronted Pyongyang with evidence of the secret enterprise, begun in violation of a 1994 bilateral accord under which North Korea agreed to shutter a nuclear weapons plant being used to produce weapons-grade material, in exchange for energy and economic assistance. As the crisis escalated, the United States cut off oil shipments. North Korea, in turn, ejected U.N. weapons inspectors, restarted a closed nuclear plant, and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The talks next week will mark only the beginning of an effort to ease these tensions. "Everybody knows this is a sort of 'appearance' " of multinational talks, the Japanese official said. "We all know that the key thing will be the direct discussion between the United States and North Korea."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday the administration considers the meeting "the beginning of a long, intense process of discussion." He told Associated Press Television News the U.S. delegation will "lay out clearly our concerns about their nuclear weapons development programs and other weapons of mass destruction, of their proliferation activities, [and] missile programs," among other issues. North Korea has not announced who will head its delegation.
Bush gave Powell and White House national security adviser Condoleezza Rice the initial go-ahead to pursue the Chinese proposal last month. It was only in the past week, however, that Bush gave approval to the meeting. Scheduling was pushed forward when North Korea unexpectedly made public on Saturday its willingness to hold something other than bilateral talks.
The administration's own decision-making took place outside the normal National Security Council process that includes the Defense Department and other departments and agencies, officials said. Bush dealt directly with Rice and Powell, although Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was kept informed. The Pentagon's civilian leadership has favored a hard line with North Korea and has been opposed to talks.
Bush has been under conflicting pressures on North Korea. Before the Iraq war, many in Congress argued that the North Korean threat was more immediate. Others criticized the seeming inconsistency in Bush's decision to use military force to disarm Iraq of alleged weapons it could not deliver to the United States, while opting for diplomacy against North Korea, which the CIA has said may already possess one or two nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them abroad. Criticism also came from Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow, which pressed the United States to move more quickly toward talks, even on a bilateral basis.
But while the Asian partners had pushed for more U.S. flexibility, their endorsement of next week's meeting was somewhat tepid. Seoul welcomed the Beijing meeting, but Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan said future sessions must be expanded to include the others. "We won't share the burden resulting from any talks that we do not participate in," Yoon said.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said the talks are "something that Japan desires, too." Japan and South Korea are key to the ultimate success of negotiations, not only because they are under a more direct threat from Pyongyang's weapons, but also because their potential contributions are vital to the aid package North Korea expects to be part of any weapons deal.
But "North Korea is in the driver's seat," said Kim Young Soo, a professor at Sogang University in Seoul. "The first priority of the South Korean government is to avoid tension and move this situation into dialogue. . . . The question is, when do we get into the talks? The second round? The third round? And do we accept that or not?"
Asian analysts were divided as to whether North Korea is stalling for time, or had signaled a real intention to abandon its nuclear program. "The Iraqi war is ending, and since North Korea probably will be the next" U.S. target, "they are thinking about how they can buy time so they won't be bombed," said Katsumi Sato, director of the Modern Korea Institute in Japan, an institution often critical of Pyongyang.
China, North Korea's principal benefactor and closest international contact, long resisted U.S. pressure to become more involved. Chinese analysts in Beijing said yesterday that the talks marked a major shift in China's traditionally passive and reactive foreign policy, coinciding with the formation of a new government under Communist Party Secretary (and soon to be president) Hu Jintao, and a realization that unless it helps find a solution to the Korean crisis, it risks losing influence in an area vital to its own security.
The first indications that Beijing was prepared to act came in February, when it sent a blunt message to Pyongyang by closing off an oil pipeline to North Korea for three days. Powell visited Beijing later that month, meeting with Hu and President Jiang Zemin. U.S. officials said there were talks about the North Korea meeting when Powell traveled to Seoul for Roh Moo Hyun's inauguration last month, and even in the margins of contentious U.N. Security Council meetings over Iraq.
Last week, discussions among the partners moved into high gear. On Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov traveled to Seoul, while South Korea's foreign minister went to Beijing. On Friday, Powell spoke with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, and on Saturday, as North Korea made its surprising announcement, Ivanov was meeting Koizumi in Tokyo.
Yesterday morning, after the news was out, Bush called Koizumi in Tokyo. "We will start with three-way consultations," a Japanese official quoted Bush as saying, "but set ourselves in the direction of including Japan and South Korea."
Struck reported from Seoul. Correspondent John Pomfret contributed to this report from Beijing.