- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea said yesterday that Pyongyang’s demand for civilian nuclear power is not a “showstopper” and that some kind of compromise on the issue is possible.

Although the diplomat, Christopher Hill, insisted that the reclusive communist state does not need nuclear energy, he indicated that the United States is trying to address the issue with more flexibility than in the past.

“I think we can come up with something,” he told reporters. “But I cannot be more specific than that because we are in the middle of a negotiation.”

The last round of six-party talks in Beijing about North Korea’s nuclear programs deadlocked over North Korea’s insistence on its right to develop nuclear power — a demand the United States flatly rejected.

U.S. negotiators were taken aback when senior South Korean officials said on Aug. 11 that they also believed the North had a right to a peaceful nuclear program.

Attempts to reconcile the differences between the two allies were expected to figure prominently in a meeting at the State Department late yesterday between South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Speaking earlier yesterday, Mr. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, played down the North’s demand for a civilian reactor, calling it a “theoretical, downstream” matter that is “not a major stumbling block.”

“If you ask me, it’s not exactly a showstopper issue — the real issue is getting rid of all their nuclear programs,” Mr. Hill said.

He conceded, however, that “for some of the partners” in the talks — South Korea and Russia — the issue is whether “North Korea could then reclaim a right to nuclear energy.”

Even if that happens — provided Pyongyang rejoins the nonproliferation regime and allows U.N. inspectors back in — the impoverished country cannot afford a nuclear reactor, and no one has come forward with an offer to build one, Mr. Hill said.

Diplomats familiar with the negotiations said the United States is trying to convince the North and the other participants in the six-party talks that granting Pyongyang the “right” to nuclear power would bring it no practical benefit.

But the supporters of the idea argue that it would be a goodwill gesture to the North, and note that symbolic gestures are very important to the isolated communist state.

The mere discussion of the North’s right to nuclear energy has upset some members of the Bush administration, who say that a civilian program could be a cover for a weapons program, given the North’s record of cheating on a 1994 nuclear deal with the Clinton administration.

U.S. officials said Mr. Hill is aware of that and tries to play his cards wisely. He has repeatedly noted that Miss Rice has given him full authority to negotiate.

The recess after 13 days of talks in Beijing has been filled with diplomatic activity by all six participants — which include Japan. Their immediate goal is to agree on a “statement of principles” that could lead to a comprehensive deal as early as the fall.

Mr. Hill is meeting with Chinese, Japanese and South Korean officials this week; State Department special envoy Joseph DeTrani met with North Korean diplomats at the United Nations last week and is expected to return to New York in the next few days.

Mr. Ban, the South Korean foreign minister, also met in Washington with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Seoul has offered to connect North Korea to its electrical grid as part of a compensation package. Washington’s latest offer, made in June 2004, does not include energy aid, but officials have suggested they might be willing to consider it.

“We have a set of measures that make it unnecessary for them to have a nuclear program,” Mr. Hill said yesterday.

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