- The Washington Times - Friday, February 21, 2003

The United States "will definitely be a contributor" to food programs for North Korea this year despite lingering concerns about improper distribution, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to announce continued U.S. assistance to the starving nation, although he will not make a specific commitment, during a trip to Japan, China and South Korea that begins today, the official said.
Mr. Powell is looking to jump-start efforts to prepare for "multilateral talks" with the North amid insistence by most regional powers and North Korea itself on dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
But the official, who briefed reporters at the State Department about the trip, made clear that Mr. Powell is not going to Asia with concrete proposals for a multinational forum, even though he will be open to any ideas from the others.
"We are looking for North Korea to accept someone's invitation to come to some kind of a multilateral forum," he said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Wednesday that there can be "bilateral talks," "multilateral talks" and "bilateral talks in a multilateral context."
"There needs to be a way of making clear that the world does care about these matters, the world is concerned about these matters, but the United States is also willing to talk directly to the North Koreans in that context," he said.
Wendy Sherman, North Korea policy coordinator in the Clinton administration, said yesterday that the United States can have a multilateral strategy and can coordinate policy with other countries while simultaneously pursuing bilateral talks.
"There are plenty of multilateral contexts, but at the end of the day there have to be direct talks with negotiators from both sides," she said.
The "vague" U.S. approach, as Mr. Boucher called it, has puzzled North Korea's neighbors.
While all involved countries agree that the Korean peninsula should remain denuclearized, South Korea, China, Russia and less vocally Japan argue that only direct U.S.-North Korean talks can resolve the nuclear standoff.
"Maybe we haven't convinced them adequately enough" that this is "very much an international problem," and not one between the two countries, the senior official said.
Because of these differences, neither China nor Russia has been willing to put real pressure on North Korea, despite repeated appeals from Washington. In addition, the other two countries have not expressed alarm over the North's recent moves to restart its nuclear program.
But the official said that lately he has "detected intensification of diplomatic activity" between Pyongyang and Beijing, which is the North's "supplier of last resort" and has a long-standing alliance with Kim Jong-il's government.
On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council took up the North Korean matter, which was referred to it by the International Atomic Energy Agency after North Korea pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty last month. The council sent the issue to an expert group. The IAEA functions under the aegis of the United Nations.
While the Bush administration had been seeking Security Council action for some time, it insists that speculation about economic sanctions against the North is premature.
"It is not an approach that involves sanctions at this point," Mr. Boucher said. "We have asked for the matter to be taken to the Security Council, but while all options remain on the table, that has not been something we have raised as a priority at this moment."
A North Korean MiG-19 fighter plane, meanwhile, intruded into South Korea's airspace yesterday for the first time in 20 years. The South Korean Defense Ministry said the South scrambled six F-5E fighters, and in two minutes the MiG returned across the border over the Yellow Sea.
"We firmly protest this intrusion and strongly demand the North prevent further incidents," the ministry said, calling on Pyongyang to take "responsible measures."
Continuing the North's recent fiery rhetoric, the official Korean Central News Agency said that "the situation on the Korean Peninsula and northeast Asia is so alarming that a nuclear war may break out at any moment."
During his visit to Seoul, Mr. Powell will attend the inauguration of President Roh Moo-hyun on Tuesday and have a meeting with him later that day. In addition to North Korea, they will discuss the overall state of the ties between their countries. The relationship has been marred by large anti-U.S. protests in the South and statements by Mr. Roh during and after his election campaign that he intends to chart a more independent course in his relations with the United States.
"It will be the beginning of a relationship of trust and a chance to engage with the younger generation, who are the people that elected Mr. Roh," the senior State Department official said in reference to the Powell visit.
In Beijing, where talks also will focus on China's role in the Iraq crisis as a permanent Security Council member, Mr. Powell will meet with President Jiang Zemin; his expected successor in that post, Hu Jintao; and Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. Mr. Hu already has replaced Mr. Jiang as Communist Party leader.
China, with Russia and France, who also are permanent council members, opposes military action against Iraq and has called for more inspections.
In Tokyo, Mr. Powell will meet with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani and parliamentarians.


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