- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

North Korea has accepted the Bush administration’s offer of multilateral talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program, Russian and U.S. officials said yesterday, noting that a meeting is expected to take place “in the near future.”

The North’s bow, following months of insistence on direct dialogue with the United States, came after the administration agreed to add Russia to a group that initially was to include China, Japan and South Korea.

In fact, it was Russia that announced yesterday the willingness of Kim Jong-il’s regime to participate in a six-party forum. The message was delivered to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov by the North’s ambassador to Moscow, Pak Ui-chun.

“On behalf of his leadership, the ambassador said that [North Korea] favors holding six-sided talks with Russia’s participation on settling the current difficult situation on the Korean peninsula and is undertaking active efforts for them to take place,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

There was no official confirmation from North Korea.

The State Department said that Moscow’s announcement was “consistent” with what Washington was hearing from Beijing, which has been the most active mediator in trying to bring North Korea and the United States to the negotiating table.

“We are quite encouraged that the North Koreans are accepting the president’s proposal for multilateral talks,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

Yesterday’s announcement came shortly after the Bush administration’s top arms-control official declared: “The days of [North Korean] blackmail are over.”

John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, told a private think tank in Seoul that North Korea’s leader lives like royalty while keeping “hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food. For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare.”

President Bush discussed Pyongyang’s decision with Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday. Mr. Bush referred to that conversation during his press conference a few hours later, but chose not to make a big announcement.

The Bush administration has rejected bilateral negotiations with North Korea, arguing that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program is a threat not only to the United States and should be dealt with in a manner that involves all major regional powers.

Active diplomacy aimed at winning support for a multilateral forum began during Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s visit to Japan, China and South Korea in February.

In April, China hosted a meeting with U.S. and North Korean officials, but it failed to go beyond the two delegation’s carefully scripted talking points and produced no results.

The North Koreans, however, told the United States that the North already had nuclear weapons and planned to prove their existence soon.

Since then, Pyongyang has also claimed to have processed 8,000 spent fuel rods that can be used to produce plutonium — an assertion Washington has not been able to confirm.

China was preparing to host another round of trilateral talks, but Mr. Boucher said such a meeting is not likely to take place now that the North has agreed to a six-party forum.

Mr. Powell proposed including Russia in the talks during a meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo in Washington two weeks ago. The Chinese government then contacted North Korea, where Mr. Dai had traveled to meet with Mr. Kim just before a visit to the United States.

Mr. Boucher said multilateral talks will begin “in the near future.” But a senior State Department official was more specific, saying he hopes for a meeting in early September and possibly even before that.

The administration has yet to decide who will represent the United States at the talks and what exactly should be put on the table.

“We’ll be prepared to present some ideas, but I’m not prepared at this moment to lay out for you what we might want to do at discussions once they are set,” the senior official said.

Analysts expect a fierce battle in the administration over the details of any U.S. proposal, given the history of opposing views on North Korea policy in the past.

“The administration needs a realistic and practical negotiating proposal that its representative can take to the meeting, and I’m sure there will be many different opinions,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

He said that, while Russia’s presence “changes the dynamic in North Korea’s favor,” it could actually “help both sides.”

According to U.S. officials, the Russian government has been divided over North Korea policy for months, which is why Moscow has thus far been reluctant to play an active role in resolving the nuclear-production issue.

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