South Korea joined China on Tuesday in expressing concern that the Bush administration had not been sufficiently creative or willing to compromise in stalled negotiations over ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki Moon, told reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that he suggested to Powell that the United States and its allies "must come up with a more creative and realistic proposal" to lure North Korea back to the talks "as soon as possible." He did not elaborate.
Chinese officials in Beijing told Powell on Monday that the Bush administration should be more open to compromise in the six-nation talks. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told him that China wished "the U.S. side would go further to adopt a flexible and practical attitude," the official New China News Agency reported.
The United States has insisted that it will give North Korea no rewards until the communist state fully discloses its nuclear programs and allows independent verification of its report. South Korea and Japan, by contrast, have proposed to immediately provide fuel oil if the North commits to freeze and ultimately dismantle its programs.
At the news conference with Ban, Powell defended the administration's position. "We have a good proposal on the table," Powell said, noting that U.S. officials had modified their plan in June, which he said demonstrated flexibility.
"The way to move forward is to have the next round of six-party talks so we can discuss that proposal and not have negotiations with ourselves at press conferences," Powell said.
During a three-day swing through the region, Powell won support from Japan, China and South Korea for resuming the talks as soon as possible. But the conflicting statements on the U.S. position suggested a growing divide with key U.S. allies over how to structure an opening offer to North Korea.
Multilateral talks planned for September were scrapped after North Korea refused to attend, citing what it described as the Bush administration's "hostile policy."
South Korean officials have privately pressed the United States to make a symbolic contribution to the fuel oil deliveries, such as paying a few million dollars in administrative expenses. But the Bush administration has resisted the idea.
In official statements before Powell's arrival in Asia on Saturday, North Korea tried to take advantage of the division by insisting it would return to the bargaining table only if the United States committed to making such a goodwill gesture upfront.
At the news conference Tuesday, Ban also expressed some irritation at a new U.S. law signed by President Bush last week that calls for human rights issues in North Korea to be addressed at the nuclear talks. Ban said that while South Korea supports standing up for human rights in the North, "the particular situations of that particular country have to be taken into account when we deal with these kinds of issues." He expressed hope that the legislation -- heavily criticized by the North Korean government -- would not harm the talks.
Three rounds of talks, which also include Russia, have been held in Beijing since August 2003, with inconclusive results. Li said China would "make efforts to push for a new round of six-party talks at the earliest possible date." In the past, China, North Korea's main benefactor, has provided aid worth tens of millions of dollars to North Korea before each session in order to prod its reclusive government to send a delegation.
During his one-day visit to Seoul, the South Korean capital, Powell also sought to ease concerns over the Bush administration's plans to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea. The cut is part of a broader plan for military redeployments around the world designed in part to better counter terrorist groups.
The reduction of U.S. troops, including some stationed in Seoul, "will return valuable urban land to our Korean hosts that will allow us to adapt to the new international circumstances and take advantage of new military technology" while still deterring North Korea, Powell said.
U.S. intelligence analysts have said they believe that North Korea has produced enough weapons-grade plutonium in the past two years to make six nuclear weapons. Officially, the United States says that North Korea now possesses one or two nuclear weapons.
Powell has repeatedly stated that the United States wants a diplomatic solution to the standoff over North Korea's nuclear programs. But a U.S.-led naval exercise this week in Japanese waters, simulating the interception of a ship carrying chemical weapons from North Korea, has riled officials in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. The official KCNA news agency condemned the exercise on Monday as the "ultimate war action," warning that "these moves only make the prospect of the negotiations . . . dimmer as the days go by."
On Tuesday, Pyongyang levied a new accusation, claiming Bush was trying to win votes in next week's presidential election by blaming North Korea for a delay in the nuclear talks.
Special correspondent Joohee Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.