Top U.S. and North Korean negotiators yesterday met privately for just over a half-hour during a multilateral conference presided over by China, but the United States said immediately thereafter that it would not hold formal bilateral meetings with the communist state aimed at ending the nuclear crisis.
“Assistant Secretary [of State James] Kelly had an informal exchange with North Korean representatives in the plenary meeting at the end of the day,” a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman told reporters in Beijing, referring to the first day of the six-nation talks.
“There will not be any separate formal bilateral meetings with the North Koreans.”
U.S. diplomats gave out few substantive details from the first of three days of talks at a Chinese state guesthouse in Beijing, while private analysts said a decision to suspend indefinitely work on a pair of nuclear power plants for the North could bolster the Bush administration’s tough line in the talks.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker acknowledged that lead U.S. delegate Mr. Kelly and North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il talked informally at the end of the daylong session, but he refused to characterize the discussions.
“No adjective. No adverbs,” said Mr. Reeker, adding that there could be more informal bilateral encounters between the U.S. and North Korean officials amid discussions today and tomorrow.
A U.S. defense official said, however, that the first day of talks had produced nothing unexpected.
The statements by the North Koreans were “consistent with what they’ve said in the past,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The North Koreans reiterated that they will not consider giving up their “nuclear deterrent” until the United States provides assistance and security guarantees.
“They continued to call for U.S. concessions,” the official said.
As for the U.S. team, the message to the North Koreans was that “we’re not going to make concessions until you live up to past agreements,” the official said.
South Korea, Japan, Russia and China also are taking part in the discussions, sparked by North Korea’s admission to Mr. Kelly late last year that it had revived its nuclear weapons programs, in violation of promises made under an accord with the Clinton administration in 1994.
The United States is seeking a termination of the North’s nuclear programs and the readmission of international inspectors.
North Korean officials, in opening remarks at the Beijing conference, repeated demands that Washington agree to a nonaggression treaty and economic assistance before Pyongyang would discuss its nuclear programs, according to Japan’s Kyodo news service.
Diplomats and private analysts have low expectations from the talks, saying the likelihood of a major breakthrough in Beijing is slim, and that the best result would be for the various parties to agree to continue talking.
“I would not say I am feeling great optimism,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov told the Interfax news agency in Beijing. “The situation is quite fragile.”
But the news that an international consortium is poised to formally suspend work on two light-water nuclear reactors promised to North Korea actually may aid the Bush administration’s bargaining position in the talks, critics of the project said yesterday.
Administration officials say it is virtually certain that the board of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization — which includes representatives from the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union — will vote in the coming weeks to suspend construction indefinitely on the proposed $4.6 billion effort.
“I think there were plenty of reasons to terminate the reactors independent of what was happening in Beijing,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the D.C.-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
“Frankly, a suspension could actually push the diplomacy along by showing the North Koreans we aren’t going to pretend things are progressing anymore.”
Under the 1994 deal, the consortium partners had agreed to build the two reactors in exchange for a pledge from North Korea to halt a clandestine nuclear arms program.
The project has been on indefinite hold after the United States accused the North of violating the deal by reviving its drive to build and sell nuclear weapons.
Separately, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has come to the defense of his former senior envoy to North Korea, saying Ambassador Jack Pritchard had not resigned his post on the eve of the talks to protest the Bush administration’s hard line.
In a letter to Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, released Tuesday evening by the department, Mr. Powell denied that Mr. Pritchard had tried to soften U.S. criticism of the Pyongyang regime in private dealings with North Korean diplomats.
Mr. Kyl had raised concerns that Mr. Pritchard, who left the department Friday, had distanced himself from a strong critique of the North Korean regime by State Department arms control chief John Bolton, who in a speech in South Korea last month had said that North Korea was a “hellish nightmare” run by a “tyrannical dictator.”
In his contacts with North Korean officials, Mr. Pritchard “did not say or imply that Mr. Bolton was speaking only in a private capacity,” Mr. Powell wrote.
The talks in Beijing represent a diplomatic victory for President Bush, who has insisted that the North Korean crisis be addressed in a multilateral forum that included allies South Korea and Japan.
North Korea had pushed for direct one-on-one talks with the United States.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said, “The president has long said that this is a multilateral issue, and we are pleased that the meetings have begun and we welcome them.”
Much of the first day of talks consisted of envoys from the six nations stating their formal positions. South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, quoting government officials, said neither the North Korean nor the U.S. delegates offered any concessions in their opening remarks.
It is not even clear how much negotiating room North Korea’s diplomats have at the talks. Mr. Kim and his aides were wearing red, flag-shaped pins with portraits of regime founder Kim Il-sung on their suits.
The conference site featured a large chandelier and a huge, six-sided table to accommodate the negotiators, aides and translators. Host China, North Korea’s chief ally, staged a photo opportunity before the talks began, which included a large group handshake encompassing Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kim.
In a carefully choreographed encounter near the end of the day, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kim talked privately on a sofa in a corner of the conference room, according to South Korean and Japanese diplomats.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.