Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's decision to meet with the North Korean foreign minister at a regional economic conference here Friday signifies a growing willingness by the Bush administration to demonstrate diplomatic progress in the impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions. But, despite months of negotiations, it appears that neither the United States nor North Korea has altered its bottom-line demands, leaving a wide gap between the two countries.
Both sides profess to want a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and have shelved their harsh rhetoric. But the administration insists it will not provide any tangible benefits to North Korea until after the insular communist state has renounced nuclear weapons, identified its programs and had its claims verified. North Korea, by contrast, has said it wants the United States to reward it immediately for formally pledging to freeze and ultimately dismantle its programs.
It is unclear how the two sides can bridge that divide, especially in the time remaining before the U.S. presidential election. Powell told reporters Thursday that because North Korea violated a 1994 agreement, "we have to see deeds before we are prepared to put something on the table." North Korea, in a statement after the Powell meeting, lamented the lack of trust.
Powell said he and his North Korean counterpart, Paek Nam Sun, did not negotiate but sought "clarity" in each other's positions. "These are difficult negotiations. It just doesn't happen overnight," Powell told a group of Indonesian students after meeting with Paek. "There is a great deal of mistrust between the United States and North Korea."
The Bush administration is eager to show progress in the North Korean crisis. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, has made the administration's North Korea policy a central part of his critique of President Bush's foreign policy. Kerry has argued that Bush's refusal to hold direct talks with the North has needlessly delayed diplomacy and allowed the country to rapidly build its nuclear arsenal.
Internally, the Bush administration has often been divided over how to deal with North Korea, also hampering diplomatic efforts. But with the election season in full swing, the tempo of U.S. actions has quickened.
Last week, after prodding from U.S. allies, American negotiators presented a more detailed plan for ending the crisis. Then Powell met with Paek on the sidelines of a Asian security forum. Next week, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice will travel to Seoul, the South Korean government announced Friday, and North Korea is expected to be a prominent topic.
Under the new U.S. proposal, South Korea and other U.S. allies could provide immediate energy assistance to North Korea, which would have three months to reveal its programs and have its claims verified by U.S. intelligence. The United States would then join in written security assurances and participate in a process that might ultimately result in direct U.S. aid.
In interagency discussions on the proposal, U.S. officials said, Powell suggested offering provisional security assurances at the same time South Korea began energy assistance, giving North Korea at least a symbolic reward. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld persuaded Bush to withhold the assurances until North Korea displayed its nuclear materials and U.S. intelligence verified that Pyongyang wasn't holding anything back.