Tuesday, October 26, 2004

China urged the United States yesterday to be more “flexible” with North Korea if it wants talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program to resume and rebuffed a U.S. call to begin a dialogue with Taiwan to ease tensions between the mainland and the island.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked China’s top leaders during a visit to Beijing to exert their “considerable influence” on North Korea to return to six-country nuclear talks, which also include Japan, South Korea and Russia.

“I hope that as a result of our conversations, both of us will energize the other members of the six-party framework to resolve the outstanding issues that keep us from setting a date for a meeting,” Mr. Powell said at a press conference, according to a transcript released by the State Department.

Mr. Powell this morning met with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in Seoul on the third leg of his Asian trip, which began in Japan.

In one sign of the tensions in the region, South Korean military forces were put on their highest state of alert just hours after Mr. Powell arrived, after a hole was discovered in the wire fence that forms the southern boundary of the 2.5-mile-wide zone that separates the two Koreas.

The 16-by-12-inch hole, cut through two layers of wire fence, was discovered early today near Yeoncheon, a border town 40 miles north of Seoul.

In China, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said separately that Beijing would continue to work toward reconvening the talks, but he added that the outcome depends partly on Washington.

“The Korean nuclear issue is complicated and demands patience, flexibility and congeniality from the parties concerned,” he said. “We wish the U.S. side would go further to adopt a flexible and practical attitude on the issue.”

The Bush administration has refused to meet bilaterally with North Korea or to offer any incentives in exchange for Pyongyang’s good behavior.

In contrast, Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, has said that he would negotiate directly with Pyongyang and has accused President Bush of neglecting the North Korean nuclear threat.

The administration argues that bilateral negotiations do not work, citing the North’s cheating on a 1994 agreement to freeze its plutonium program by enriching uranium instead.

Both plutonium and enriched uranium can be used to make atomic bombs.

Last year, the administration devised the six-party format, saying that it would be harder for Pyongyang to break any commitment it makes to all five other countries, rather than just the United States.

The three meetings that have taken place so far — all of them hosted by China — have produced no results.

On Taiwan, Mr. Powell called on the Chinese leaders with whom he met yesterday — President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Mr. Li — to accept the offer presented by Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), for talks on the heightened cross-strait tensions.

“I particularly encouraged [them] to do everything they could to get into cross-strait dialogue in a more systematic and deliberate way,” Mr. Powell said.

But a senior U.S. official said the Chinese rejected the secretary’s call.

In an unusual remark, Mr. Powell talked about “reunification” between the mainland and Taiwan as a solution that Washington supports.

“We want to see both sides not take unilateral action that would prejudice an eventual outcome, a reunification that all parties are seeking,” he said in an interview with CNN.

But U.S. officials later said the secretary had misspoken and insisted that the United States continues to support the status quo — until both sides agree on whether and how to change it.

“There could be different outcomes, and reunification is only one of them,” one official said.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said, “I don’t think you should read [in Mr. Powell’s comment] any prejudging or hinting or departure from our long-standing position,” he said.

Although for many years it was Taiwan’s goal to seek reunification, Mr. Chen’s pro-independence party has been backing away from that policy.

Taiwan’s office in Washington yesterday declined to explain the island’s official position.

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