- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 4, 2002

North Korea signaled for the first time yesterday that it is willing to start a dialogue with the Bush administration, but it told Washington that "groundless slander" against Pyongyang "should not be repeated."
In an unusual and ambiguous statement carried by the official KCNA news agency, the Foreign Ministry said the North had "decided to resume negotiations" with an organization founded by the United States, Japan and South Korea to implement a 1994 accord that froze Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.
But administration officials and diplomats said the statement was a sign that the reclusive state is open to broader engagement with Washington, which has expressed willingness to talk "at anytime, any place, without preconditions" while branding the North part of an "axis of evil."
"Our position has always been, and will continue to be, that we welcome dialogue with North Korea anytime, anywhere," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters.
Neither the White House nor the State Department would publicly interpret yesterday's statement as an official response to the broad U.S. offer, but only as a reply to Washington's specific proposal to restart cooperation with the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO).
"We believe this is a reference to North Korea's decision to resume postponed talks with KEDO," said a State Department official, referring to a meeting that was originally scheduled for early March but never took place.
However, administration officials and diplomats from East Asia said privately that Pyongyang's overture was an encouraging development with the potential to break the stalemate in U.S.-North Korean relations since President Bush took office nearly 15 months ago.
"Clearly the North Koreans are referring to the resumption of talks with KEDO, but they are hinting at broader resumption of talks on other issues with the United States," a White House official said.
The State Department official confirmed the North's announcement that U.S. special envoy Charles Pritchard had proposed in meetings with North Korea's U.N. mission chief, Pak Gil-yon, on March 13 and March 20 to resume the KEDO talks. Pyongyang "informed us of their decision last week," he said.
Yesterday, North Korea also notified KEDO, officials at the New York-based organization said. The last meeting took place in February, a KEDO spokesman said, noting that those talks are usually on technical issues and occur several times a year.
In its statement, Pyongyang said it had "carefully examined the U.S. side's position and decided to resume the negotiations, taking its request into consideration."
But it warned that "groundless slanders" against the communist state "should not be repeated and, if such things happen, it will regard the U.S. position as deceptive."
Mr. Fleischer said, "The president will continue to speak out forthrightly about what he sees as ways to make peace throughout the world."
The KEDO talks focus on two light-water reactors it is building in North Korea. In the 1994 deal, known as the Agreed Framework, the United States agreed to help fund the modern atomic power plants and send yearly shipments of fuel oil until the plants are completed.
The $4.6 billion project was supposed to be finished by next year, but delays have pushed back completion until at least 2008.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been monitoring the facilities shut down in 1994: an experimental gas-graphite power reactor, a fuel-fabrication facility and a reprocessing plant. But Washington is concerned that Pyongyang hasn't provided a record of plutonium the primary fuel needed to make atom bombs and that it may be hiding nuclear bomb-making materials.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Bush decided not to certify Pyongyang's compliance with the framework in a first for a U.S. president but still ship 500,000 tons of fuel oil, as required by the accord.
The White House insisted that the decision didn't mean the United States had evidence that North Korea was violating the agreement, only that Washington did not have enough information to make a judgment.
Mr. Bush's decision reflected the complexity and sensitivity of his dual policy of maintaining a tough stance on the North while offering dialogue. It was an attempt to please both North Korea critics in the Republican Party and advocates of cooperation with the impoverished country.
As important as yesterday's statement was, administration officials said many of the issues the United States wants to discuss with North Korea its actual nuclear and missile capabilities, as well as its million-strong force on the northern side of the Demilitarized Zone can be dealt with only at bilateral meetings.
Pyongyang's statement came shortly after a South Korean envoy, Lim Dong-won, arrived there for the first North-South meeting since November. Mr. Lim, a diplomatic and national security adviser to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, urged the North to engage with Washington and try to ease tensions, a South Korean official told reporters in Seoul.
Reports emerged yesterday that Mr. Lim, who was to deliver a personal message from Mr. Kim to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, was also carrying a message from the United States.
The State Department official, who didn't confirm or deny the report, said Washington believes South Korea is "fully aware" of the U.S. view and that its envoy will convey it properly to the North Koreans.

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