- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday promised Japan and South Korea "early inclusion" in upcoming talks with North Korea aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program, saying no substantive results can be achieved without Tokyo and Seoul's participation.

In Seoul today, the South Korean news agency Yonhap said the United States will abandon three-party talks with North Korea and China if Pyongyang insists on shutting South Korea out of the talks to resolve the nuclear crisis.

"Washington has pledged not to proceed with the three-way dialogue if we are not allowed to take part in substantial discussions," Yonhap quoted an unnamed official as saying.

The White House also sought to lower expectations for the first meeting in Beijing next week, which will be limited to the United States, North Korea and China. That format, U.S. and Asian officials said, is a compromise between the U.S. demand for a multilateral forum and North Korea's insistence on direct talks with the United States.

"You should look at these as initial discussions," said Sean McCormack, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. "We do not expect an immediate breakthrough, but we are looking for progress."

The talks may begin as early as Wednesday and run for three days.

The State Department said the U.S. goal in engaging with the North is to discuss how it can "verifiably" suspend its nuclear weapons program, but it acknowledged the North Koreans will have their own agenda. One item on that agenda has been the demand by Pyongyang for a nonaggression pact with the United States.

The Bush administration has been trying to organize a forum with the participation of regional powers, including Russia, saying North Korea's nuclear ambitions affect all of them.

"The early inclusion of the Republic of Korea and Japan will be essential to reach substantive results that we are seeking," said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker, using the formal name for South Korea.

Japan and South Korea said they should be at the table but accepted the three-way format for the sake of beginning a process that has taken months of intensive diplomatic efforts. They also went out of their way to say the Bush administration, unlike earlier in its term, had consulted with them extensively before agreeing to the Beijing meeting.

"We decided to support the talks because it is of paramount importance that talks begin to lay the foundation for a peaceful solution to this problem," South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan said in Seoul. "The priority is to lift the atmosphere of crisis from the Korean Peninsula."

Mr. Yoon said he agreed to the limited format during his meeting with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in Washington last month.

"The United States promised to reflect South Korea's views fully during the talks," he said. "We will not be responsible for any decisions which will be made without our participation."

Japan's government spokesman, Yasuo Fukuda, welcomed what he called "the first step towards multiparty talks," adding, "We are confident that this will develop into multinational talks including Japan."

Contacts between the United States and North Korea abruptly ended following an October visit to Pyongyang by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

At that meeting, according to the United States, the North Koreans declared the 1994 framework accord nullified and admitted having a secret program to enrich uranium, a fuel for nuclear weapons.

Both Mr. McCormack and Mr. Reeker said yesterday the United States is prepared to put back on the table a "bold initiative" in which Washington would reward Pyongyang for giving up its nuclear program and for taking other steps to reduce tension.

The October meeting with Mr. Kelly had prompted the Bush administration to withdraw the offer.In an ironic twist, Mr. Kelly will lead the U.S. delegation at the Beijing meeting, the State Department said yesterday.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said "North Korea will take the road of reform and openness if economic aid and its political system are guaranteed," referring to the regime of reclusive leader Kim Jong-il.

U.S. officials said there is a fierce battle in the administration - as there was before Mr. Kelly's last meeting with the North Koreans - over what he should be prepared to accept and offer, and what signals he might send about the administration's attitude toward the North.The hawks, convinced President Bush in the fall that Mr. Kelly should confront North Korea with intelligence about a secret uranium-enrichment program right at the beginning, are again advocating a tough stance.

The doves favor an approach that emphasizes the U.S. desire to resolve the issue through diplomacy rather than force.

But the hawks say Pyongyang's decision to settle for three-way talks in Beijing is a vindication of their hard-line position, which was helped by U.S. success in Iraq.

Former U.S. officials and analysts, however, questioned that assertion. While they welcomed the news about the talks, some said it is hardly a victory for the Bush administration.

"The three-way format seems to provide both sides with the essential conditions for dialogue that each has been insisting on for some time," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "Now the question is whether each side is willing to enter into a comprehensive agreement."

U.S. officials said China approached North Korea on Washington's behalf in early March with an offer for six-party talks. But Pyongyang seemed cool to the proposal, so Beijing tried again, this time excluding Japan, South Korea and Russia.On Friday, North Korea indicated in a statement that it would be willing to consider formats other than bilateral talks.

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