-- A senior Chinese official will travel to North Korea after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds talks in Beijing this weekend, as China seeks the resumption of negotiations on North Korea's nuclear weapons program, the government announced Friday.
The trip, by Tang Jiaxuan, state councilor and a former foreign minister, is part of Chinese efforts to narrow differences between the North Korean government and the Bush administration over the possible return of North Korea to six-nation talks it has boycotted for the last 13 months.
Although the announcement by the Foreign Ministry did not detail Tang's plans, the veteran diplomat was expected to report to North Korean officials on U.S. ideas for getting the talks back on track.
Prior to opening weekend talks with Chinese officials, Rice strongly suggested Friday that the United States and its allies would not permit North Korea access to nuclear power for its energy needs even if it gave up its nuclear weapons programs.
"There are attendant proliferation risks with nuclear power that are hard to minimize given the history with North Korea," Rice told reporters as she flew to Beijing for the first leg of a five-day swing through Asia to convince North Korea to return to stalled disarmament talks.
Hopes of a resumption of the negotiations have risen recently. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, told South Korea's Unification Minister, Chung Dong Young, that he would authorize a resumption of talks this month if the United States showed respect toward the North.
In the rare face-to-face meeting on June 17, Chung told Kim, in return, South Korea was willing to help finance a massive energy assistance package but that it would not include nuclear power, according to a senior U.S. official briefed on the discussions.
Chung's comments on nuclear power, which have been not been made public, pleased U.S. officials who have been wary of any agreement that involved the transfer of nuclear technology to Pyongyang.
Rice noted she had met with Chung when he visited Washington last week. "I thought the South Koreans had some very useful thoughts, and that is something I would like to follow up with when I'm here," Rice said, without elaborating.
But a Chinese official said it was still unclear whether the promise of resumed talks could be realized anytime soon.
Chinese diplomats are uncertain whether the first move should come from North Korea or the United States in order to create an atmosphere permitting new negotiations, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter's diplomatic sensitivity. As the host and sponsor of the six-nation talks, and as North Korea's main ally, China has played a key role as go-between, trying to prevent a definitive breakdown despite the wide gap between Washington and Pyongyang.
The Bush administration has ignored suggestions from Chinese officials that softer language could foster a more cooperative attitude from Kim. Specifically, Rice has refused to cede to North Korean demands that she apologize for calling North Korea an "outpost of tyranny."
Rice emphasized Friday that if North Korea returns to the negotiations, it must be prepared to bargain hard. "We do believe that coming back means not just coming back and sitting at a table but actually actively trying to resolve the issues," she said.
The talks, comprising North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States, began in August 2003 in Beijing. Two more rounds, in February and June 2004, were held here before North Korea balked, citing the Bush administration's tough rhetoric.
China, which is North Korea's neighbor, has invested heavily in keeping the negotiations alive, saying it, too, is eager to remove the danger of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. But Bush administration officials repeatedly have complained that the Beijing government refuses to use all the tools at its disposal, including oil deliveries, to pressure Kim into giving up his weapons.
A previous agreement with North Korea, reached in 1994 by the Clinton administration, envisioned the building of two light-water reactors to supply North Korea with energy after a plutonium reactor was shut down. Construction of the reactors had begun, but was halted in 2002 after the Bush administration accused North Korea of violating the 1994 agreement with a clandestine uranium-enrichment program.
North Korea has since restarted the plutonium facility and extracted weapons-grade material from its spent fuel rods. U.S. intelligence analysts estimate that North Korea now possesses enough nuclear material to construct at least nine weapons.
Kessler reported from Anchorage.