BEIJING — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday left open the door to establishing diplomatic ties with North Korea if it abandons its nuclear ambitions.
She tempered this first for the Bush administration, however, by cautioning that the North’s return to six-party talks on its nuclear program is not yet cause for celebration.
Pyongyang, Miss Rice warned, “has a bar to pass” when the negotiations resume later this month.
“The issue now is for North Korea to make a strategic choice to give up its nuclear weapons programs,” she said when asked about diplomatic ties with Pyongyang at a press conference in Beijing. “So let’s do that, and we will see what else comes.”
Five years ago, the Clinton administration offered the North the prospect of formal relations with the United States for the first time since the communist state’s creation in 1948. This remains one of Pyongyang’s top goals, but until now the Bush administration has rebuffed the North every time the topic comes up.
Miss Rice’s vague, open-ended response came during a visit with Chinese leaders in which she also spoke of the “great momentum” in U.S.-China relations despite the latter’s “troubling” arms buildup.
She had said several times in recent months that Washington considers North Korea a “sovereign” state. The term apparently was of significance for Pyongyang, which agreed Saturday to rejoin the multiparty talks.
U.S. diplomat Christopher Hill reportedly provided an explicit assurance on the point at a “steak and cheesecake” dinner Friday with North Korean officials. He also told his counterparts that Washington had no plans to attack North Korea, the Associated Press reported.
The next round of talks is to be held the week of July 25, but Miss Rice said it is only “the first step” toward resolving the nuclear standoff.
“It is a good thing that we are going back to the talks, but it’s only a start,” the secretary of state said. “It is not the goal of the talks to have talks, [but] to make progress.”
Miss Rice spoke about the “bar” North Korea faces at the fourth session in Beijing in an interview with Fox News. She was alluding to fruitless earlier rounds, the last of which took place in June 2004.
“We shouldn’t spend too much time celebrating,” she said, because difficult work lies ahead.
The agreement on a date for the talks, in which China, Japan, South Korea and Russia also will participate, was reached between Mr. Hill, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Kim Kye-gwan, a North Korean deputy foreign minister who led his country’s delegation at the earlier sessions.
Miss Rice met yesterday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing and State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan, who plans to travel to Pyongyang tomorrow.
At her solo press conference, the secretary voiced a frank assessment of the U.S.-China relationship, saying it is “obvious” that “there are some elements of it that are troubling.”
She referred specifically to trade and economic disputes, human rights and Beijing’s increased military spending, but she said China does not necessarily pose a threat.
“There is no doubt that we have concerns about the size and pace of the Chinese military buildup, and it’s not just the Pentagon; I’ve made clear to people that this is a view held by the U.S. government,” Miss Rice said.
“That does not mean that we view China as a threat,” she said.
On balance, she said, “this relationship has great momentum. It still has more positives than negatives.”
Miss Rice also said she had asked her hosts “that China reach out to, in particular, the Dalai Lama, who is for Tibet a man of considerable moral authority but who really is of no threat to China.”
Beijing calls Tibet’s spiritual leader, a Nobel Prize-winning monk, a separatist, but he says he seeks only greater autonomy for Tibet.
Miss Rice is on her second trip to Asia since becoming secretary of state in late January. After she left Beijing yesterday, she flew to Phuket, the Thai resort town swamped by the December tsunami.
She is scheduled to visit Tokyo today and Seoul tomorrow to plot strategy for the six-party talks.