- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

President Bush yesterday praised communist China for helping persuade North Korea to hold multilateral talks with the United States aimed at halting Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

“Thanks to the Chinese leadership — and we do applaud Hu Jintao and his administration for agreeing to be a responsible party in the neighborhood in which they live — it looks like we’ll have a multinational forum,” the president told reporters during a Cabinet meeting.

Mr. Bush spoke by telephone with the Chinese president on Wednesday to urge him to pressure North Korean President Kim Jong-il to give up his insistence on bilateral talks with Washington.

“I told President Hu that I think it’s very important for us to get Japan and South Korea and Russia involved as well,” Mr. Bush said later that day, predicting “an attitudinal change by Kim Jong-il.”

That change came on Thursday, when Pyongyang agreed to multilateral talks, as long as Russia was at the table. North Korea confirmed yesterday that it would participate in six-way talks to end its nuclear crisis.

Mr. Bush yesterday called Russia’s participation and North Korea’s decision “positive developments.”

“We were very concerned about trying to enter into a bilateral agreement with Kim Jong-il because of the fact that he didn’t tell the truth to previous administrations,” the president said. “And so we took a new tack, and that was to … engage China in the process so that there is more than one voice speaking to Mr. Kim Jong-il.”

In all, there will be five voices, including Japan and South Korea, in addition to the United States, China and Russia.

“In the past, it was the lone voice of the United States speaking clearly about this,” Mr. Bush said. “Now we’ll have other parties who have got a vested interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula.”

He added: “We’re upbeat about the fact that others are assuming responsibility for peace besides the United States of America.”

But the president — who a year ago said “I loathe Kim Jong-il” — also alluded to North Korea’s history of deception in such talks. Pyongyang signed a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration promising to abandon its nuclear programs, only to admit last October that it was using enriched uranium to develop weapons.

“We fully understand the past,” Mr. Bush said. “We are hopeful, however, that Mr. Kim Jong-il, because he’s hearing other voices, will make the decision to totally dismantle his nuclear weapons program, that he will allow there to be complete transparency and verifiability.”

Despite the president’s insistence on multilateral talks, the White House left open the possibility of informal side communications between Washington and Pyongyang, which yesterday said it would pursue one-on-one talks with the United States during the meetings.

“There’s always an opportunity for anyone to talk to another person that is sitting at the table,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. “There is always the opportunity during these meetings for North Korea or any other party to talk directly to another party.”

The location and time frame for the talks have not been set, although the White House appeared eager to get started, perhaps as soon as next month in Beijing. Pyongyang is believed to already possess one or two nuclear bombs and has been planning to build more.

Within the past year, North Korea has evicted United Nations nuclear inspectors, withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted a nuclear reactor that produces plutonium. Pyongyang admits having reprocessed 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, which could yield enough plutonium to make up to six additional bombs within a matter of months.

The administration has offered no specific inducements to Pyongyang, but suggested there would be rewards if the secretive communist dictatorship stopped reprocessing uranium and got rid of any existing nuclear weapons.

“It’s very clear to North Korea that if they end, once and for all, in a verifiable and irreversible way, their nuclear weapons program, that they stand to realize a lot of benefits from the international community,” Mr. McClellan said.

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