- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 6, 2003

SEOUL — The United States, Japan and South Korea have worked out a joint proposal on how to ease tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and will ask China to relay it to the communist North, a senior South Korean official said yesterday.

If Pyongyang accepts the proposal, a second round of six-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis will convene in Beijing, Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck told South Korean reporters upon returning home from a trip to Washington.

Ahead of the Washington talks, South Korean officials said the proposal would deal with the main sticking point: when the United States should give written security assurances to North Korea. The North wants Washington to issue the assurances simultaneously with a North Korean renunciation of its nuclear weapons program, but the United States wants the North to move first.

“The three countries have reached an understanding on the wording of a joint statement and agreed to give it to China,” Mr. Lee said. “China will send it to Pyongyang, and then there will be a response.”

“The next few days are crucial. I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” he added.

He did not give details on the proposal, drawn up in talks with his Japanese counterpart, Mitoji Yabunaka, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly. The three are their countries’ top negotiators at the nuclear talks, which also include China and Russia.

The six-nation talks had been expected to convene in Beijing on Dec. 17, but officials in Washington and Seoul had indicated that they might be delayed, particularly because of differences over the security assurances.

If Pyongyang does not signal it is willing to abandon its arms program, the United States may take the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions to the United Nations Security Council, a Japanese newspaper said yesterday, Reuters reported. The daily Yomiuri Shimbun quoted an unidentified senior U.S. official as saying Thursday there still were significant differences among the countries involved in the talks.

The official said there could be a breakthrough if North Korea says it has the intent to scrap its nuclear program but added the issue could be brought before the U.N. Security Council without such progress.

Since the first round of the six-party talks in August in Beijing, North Korea has made demands for concessions, including the security guarantees, to be extended simultaneously with a drawdown of its nuclear program instead of after the program has been shut down.

North Korea rejects a U.S. demand that it first renounce its nuclear weapons program, saying it would “rather die” than submit to conditions that amounted to slavery.

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