- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

From combined dispatches

VIENNA, Austria — The chief of the United Nations’ atomic-energy agency yesterday called communist North Korea the world’s “most serious threat” to nuclear nonproliferation as diplomatic efforts to address the crisis on the Korean Peninsula moved into overdrive.

Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made his comments as a senior Chinese envoy met with top U.S. officials pushing a new plan for talks on easing the North Korean nuclear standoff.

Also yesterday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo met separately with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to brief them on his recent talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Beijing is pushing a plan for new talks over the crisis, which has unnerved capitals across Northeast Asia.

Echoing U.S. fears, Mr. ElBaradei said yesterday he was concerned about reports that North Korea is reprocessing fuel rods. IAEA inspectors were expelled from the North last December, amid U.S. charges that Pyongyang had violated a 1994 deal not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program.

“We are not there,” he said. “We would like to be there.”

Mr. Dai said his Washington meetings were “in-depth” and “useful,” but declined to elaborate.

“The meetings and talks have been useful,” he told reporters at the State Department after an unusually long 21/2-hour discussion with Mr. Powell.

“We both agree that we need to work together to push for the process to resolve the problem through dialogue,” he said.

There are indications that Mr. Dai’s visit to Pyongyang may have softened North Korea’s hard-line stance. He presented a personal letter from Chinese President Hu Jintao to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, which reportedly urged a restart to the talks.

North Korea has consistently demanded one-on-one talks with Washington. U.S. officials have declined, anxious not to be seen as rewarding North Korea for, as they see it, precipitating the crisis.

The United States has insisted on a multilateral format for the talks and has been eager to include its Japanese and South Korean allies.

“From what we know so far, and what we have been talking to the Chinese about, North Korea is willing to resume another round of Beijing talks that could be expanded,” a senior U.S. official said on Thursday.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday that U.S. insistence on five-way talks had not changed.

China hosted the United States and North Korea for trilateral talks in Beijing in April and a South Korean official has said the three sides were likely to meet again as early as next month. Those talks would then be enlarged to include Japan and South Korea under a multilateral format proposed by the United States.

As Mr. Dai headed to the United States on Thursday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the standoff was at a “critical moment” and urged Pyongyang and Washington to revert to a 1994 anti-nuclear deal as a way out of the crisis.

Mr. Boucher said the United States was not interested in resurrecting the so-called “Agreed Framework,” which Washington says Pyongyang has effectively nullified by continuing its nuclear-weapons programs.

The North Koreans last week claimed to have finished extracting plutonium — a key ingredient for nuclear weapons — from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. Mr. ElBaradei urged renewed international efforts to pressure North Korea to honor the treaty designed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

“In my view, the situation in the DPRK is currently the most immediate and most serious threat to the nuclear-nonproliferation regime,” Mr. ElBaradei said, using the initials for the country’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The U.N. official said, however, that he was encouraged by the recent diplomatic push by China, Pyongyang’s only significant ally, toward persuading the North to agree to talks leading to the abandonment of its weapons program.

The Washington Times and several South Korean newspapers have already said China is pushing for a second round of three-way talks involving North Korea, the United States and China. The format would be later replaced by the five-way multilateral talks.

Tensions remained high along the North-South border, following an exchange of machine-gun fire Thursday. The South’s army said its troops returned fire after the North shot at an observation post in the demilitarized zone, the divided peninsula’s fortified frontier.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard were in the region yesterday on separate tours to add urgency to the latest flurry of diplomatic activity.

Mr. Howard emerged from talks with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun saying China’s efforts to coax its old ally North Korea to the negotiating table were “promising.” He said Mr. Roh “believes that North Koreans in the end will act rationally.”

Mr. Blair, who was in Tokyo yesterday after a brief visit to Washington, is scheduled to meet Mr. Roh tomorrow.

China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Yishan, told U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan yesterday that the recent visit of China’s special envoy to North Korea yielded “encouraging results.”

The dispute emerged last fall when North Korea reportedly told a top U.S. official it had started a uranium-enrichment program in violation of the 1994 accord.

The United States and its allies suspended fuel shipments promised under the 1994 deal, and Pyongyang retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, restarting frozen nuclear facilities and withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

North Korea expelled nuclear inspectors from the U.N. nuclear-watchdog agency in December, shortly after it dismantled U.N. seals and monitoring cameras installed at the country’s nuclear facilities. The facilities had been mothballed under the 1994 agreement.

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