- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

North Korea has given the strongest indication yet that it is ready to return to six-party talks on its nuclear-weapons program, U.S. and Asian officials said yesterday.

The signal came in a statement Pyongyang issued late Sunday insisting on two conditions Washington has already met: recognition of the North’s sovereignty and bilateral discussions as part of a multilateral meeting.

“We only expressed our intention to directly meet the U.S. side to confirm whether those reports were true before making a final determination,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.

The Bush administration promptly reiterated yesterday its positive response to both issues.

“The United States, of course, recognizes that North Korea is sovereign,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in a CNN interview while in Moscow with President Bush.

Later, the State Department said the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks, which also include Japan, South Korea, China and Russia, would meet with the North Koreans in a bilateral setting, as it has done in the past.

“If the North Koreans were to return to the talks, we’d certainly continue that practice,” spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

The diplomatic dance began during Miss Rice’s visit to Asia in March, when she deliberately used the phrase “sovereign state” in referring to North Korea several times.

A senior State Department official said the move — a first for the Bush administration — was meant to “give the Chinese some diplomatic language to persuade North Korea to come back” to the negotiations.

China hosted three fruitless rounds of the six-party talks in 2003 and 2004.

The main sticking point for a new round of talks has been Pyongyang’s insistence on direct bilateral talks with the United States. The Bush administration has refused, saying the nuclear problems concern all powers in the region.

Diplomats said that, after Miss Rice left Beijing on March 21, the Chinese went back to the North Koreans, armed with the secretary’s comments on the North’s “sovereignty,” and argued that Pyongyang could meet with the Americans within the six-party framework.

Chinese President Hu Jintao also told the North Koreans that Miss Rice had promised to tone down Washington’s rhetoric against Kim Jong-il’s regime, although she refused to apologize for calling the North an “outpost of tyranny.”

Pyongyang, which is always conscious of not being seen as weak in a dispute, began looking for ways to make it appear as though it was issuing demands the United States would have to accept, diplomats said.

That led to the Sunday statement with conditions to which the North knew Washington would not object.

Not only did the North Korean spokesman not repeat the earlier demand for direct talks with the United States, but he said: “We have never requested [North Korea]-U.S. talks independent of the six-party talks.”

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