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Hard-liners lose clout in N. Korea talks

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The U.S. approach to this week's six-party talks with North Korea has left some backers of a tougher stance toward Pyongyang uneasy and less influential than in the past, U.S. offaicials said yesterday.

The hard-liners, who represented the mainstream of President Bush's North Korea policy during his first term, have been made to accept a more flexible approach including direct contact with the communist state, officials from several government agencies said.

"There is a consensus on the president's policy -- however grudging it may be in some quarters," one administration official said. "Once the decision about the six-party talks was made, everybody had to be on board."

Particularly troublesome for the hard-liners has been the decision to let chief negotiator Christopher Hill hold extended one-on-one talks with the North Koreans within the context of the six-party talks.

Mr. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, met with his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, for two hours yesterday in their third direct meeting this week.

"This round seems a little bit different than previous rounds in terms of a good atmosphere and certainly the length," a senior official said yesterday.

Another official called the atmosphere "more business-like," while a third said the contactsbetween the two delegations were "warmer and fuzzier," causing unhappiness among some conservatives in the administration.

Officials said the hard-liners have been less aggressive about advancing their views than in the past, although they still write memos and papers and participate in policy meetings.

Some tough-stance advocates maintained they still have an important role in decision-making, pointing to statements at the State Department and White House briefings yesterday that the United States has "no intention of negotiating a bilateral agreement with North Korea."

Both current and former officials said Mr. Hill is sensitive to the need not to alienate a big part of Mr. Bush's electorate.

"What he has going for him," one official said, "is that he has the full trust and confidence of the secretary of state, and that she obviously has the trust and confidence of the president."

Several officials suggested that it was easier for the hard-liners to be aggressive when Colin L. Powell was secretary of state. Now, they know that if they fight Condoleezza Rice, they will be fighting the president.

When a senior Pentagon official told reporters during a trip with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last month that North Korea might soon be referred to the U.N. Security Council for sanctions, Miss Rice intervened and the official was quickly rebuked.

Officials also noted the absence of John R. Bolton, the former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security who played a significant role in North Korea policy in the last four years.

Mr. Bolton, widely known as one of the most conservative members of the administration, was nominated by Mr. Bush to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations but has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

The State Department said yesterday Mr. Bolton is still on the agency's payroll -- he occupies a "transitional office" in the building -- as a senior adviser to Miss Rice, but it would not say if he offers advice on North Korea.

Several officials at the department said North Korea's views of Mr. Bolton's successor, Robert Joseph, are practically identical to those of Mr. Bolton. Moreover, Mr. Bolton's entire staff now works for Mr. Joseph.

But while Mr. Joseph "is watching out" for the supporters of a tougher stance with Pyongyang, his style is not as aggressive as Mr. Bolton's was, officials said.

All officials spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article because they wanted the administration to appear unified around Mr. Bush's policy.

Many of them also said the administration has been able to change its approach because of a different attitude in Pyongyang.

"They understood that we are very serious about their nuclear programs," one official said. "Plus, they might have been hoping for a different administration in Washington after last year's election, and that obviously didn't happen."

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