- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

BANGKOK — President Bush yesterday softened his hard-line stance on North Korea, offering Stalinist dictator Kim Jong-il written security guarantees if he pledges to abandon his ambition to build nuclear weapons.

But the president vehemently rejected Pyongyang’s demand that the United States enter into a formal nonaggression treaty that would prevent the president from striking North Korea if it acts on its increasingly belligerent rhetoric.

“I’ve said as plainly as I can say that we have no intention of invading North Korea,” Mr. Bush said after a meeting with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. “And I’ve also said as plainly as I can that we expect North Korea to get rid of her nuclear-weapons ambitions.”

In response to a reporter’s question, Mr. Bush said: “We will not have a treaty, if that’s what you’re asking. That’s off the table.”

But, he said, short of a treaty, “perhaps there are other ways to say exactly what I said publicly” and to put it on paper “with our partners’ consent.”

The comments mark the first time the president has offered to bend on his stance of offering Mr. Kim nothing until he scraps his nuclear-weapons program. Last week, The Washington Times reported that Pyongyang sees a nonaggression pact as the essential ingredient to defusing the nuclear standoff with the United States.

The pact, which one senior administration official said would amount to an “agreement with a small ‘a,’” is viewed in the White House as a binding offer to put into words a pledge Mr. Bush has reiterated often since taking office — the United States has no intention of invading North Korea.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the gentleman’s agreement may suffice.

“We believe that we could provide the kind of assurances that the North Koreans say they are looking for, without getting it into the formal process of a treaty … that will require Senate ratification,” Mr. Powell said on the CBS show “Face the Nation.”

But he stressed that the United States would first consult close allies in the region before offering the olive branch to Pyongyang.

“I would not want to prejudge right now what other parties might be willing to do,” Mr. Powell said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Mr. Bush, who presented the idea to Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday, discussed it over breakfast this morning with President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea. Japan and Russia have also been involved in six-party talks with the United States, China and the two Koreas over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Administration officials said today that discussion of the initiative with those countries was still at an early stage, but Mr. Bush — who conceived the idea last weekend at Camp David — seemed pleased before his breakfast meeting. “We’re making good progress on peacefully solving the issue with North Korea,” he said.

China, a longtime ally of North Korea, has taken the lead in organizing six-nation talks to defuse the crisis. The first round in August ended with just an agreement to continue talking. No date has been set for the second round.

The United States hopes to present the new proposal at the next round, but will consult with the other parties first.

While the issue is certain to be on the agenda at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting here — with all six leaders of the multiparty talks attending — North Korea said the summit was not the place to discuss the nuclear standoff because it “is an issue to be resolved between us and the United States.”

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, however, said that any agreement would not be a bilateral one between the United States and North Korea, but a multilateral accord within the format of the six-party talks.

“With all of the stakeholders at the table, we’re more likely to be able to resolve this issue peacefully and to have any resolution of the issue endure,” she told ABC’s “This Week.”

During the lead-up to the Iraq war, North Korea surprised the world by announcing it had secretly restarted its nuclear program. U.S. officials believe the communist country has at least two weapons and may have as many as four.

Earlier this month, North Korea declared that it had finished reprocessing about 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and diverted plutonium obtained from them to make atomic bombs. The nation’s neighbors have grown increasingly wary of Pyongyang’s growing belligerence.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, in Bangkok for the APEC meeting, said he wanted to discuss North Korea in talks with China, Russia and South Korea and also at the summit today and tomorrow.

Japan wants a statement similar to one issued last year, warning that North Korea might interpret the absence of a communique as a reason not to resume the talks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the interests of all parties, including North Korea, had to be borne in mind in reaching a solution.

“We will be doing our best to convince our partners, including the participants of the six-party talks, to act correctly, not to spoil the established negotiation process, but to strengthen it,” Mr. Putin told Asia-Pacific business leaders.

The Russian president said more nuclear talks could yield “good, positive results” if North Korea’s security worries were addressed.

On terrorism, Mr. Bush said he would use the APEC forum to encourage more nations to contribute to Iraq’s reconstruction. In a speech to troops at the Royal Thai Army headquarters, Mr. Bush praised Thailand for sending troops to help with Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

“We must stay on the offensive until the terrorist threat is fully and finally defeated,” the president said.

Mr. Bush announced the United States and Thailand would begin talks on a free-trade deal and promised to increase U.S.-Thai military cooperation.

Protests in Bangkok were light as world leaders gathered. Last night, Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, visited the Emerald Buddha, one of the most sacred images in Thailand. They later dined with the royal family at the Grand Palace.

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