- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

Two Republican senators, including the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, yesterday called for direct U.S.-North Korea talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the panel’s top Democrat said the other four nations in the six-party negotiations — China, Russia, South Korea and Japan — have privately urged the same path on the United States, which has long rejected bilateral talks with North Korea.

“I believe that is going to happen,” said Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and Foreign Relations chairman, in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I hope it happens sooner rather than later. But I think it is inevitable, if this is to be resolved diplomatically,” he said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, also broke ranks to endorse bilateral talks with Pyongyang’s reclusive communist regime.

“North Korea wants to pound its chest. Well, let’s talk to them,” he said during an appearance on CNN’s “Late Edition.” “The issue is serious enough with North Korea, with their having nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them, that I think we ought to use every alternative, including direct bilateral talks.”

Mr. Lugar was joined in his appearance by the other three top-ranking senators on foreign-policy issues — Sens. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican; Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat; and Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.

Mr. Biden and Mr. Levin, the ranking members on the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively, also support direct U.S. talks, with Mr. Biden saying that representatives from all the other nations involved in negotiations with North Korea have endorsed direct talks to resolve the standoff.

“Every single party we’re working with, every one of them, from Japan to [South] Korea to Russia, has encouraged us privately to talk directly with North Korea,” he said.

But the State Department would have to conduct the talks, and the White House has repeatedly rejected earlier calls, mostly from Democrats, for direct talks with North Korea.

Only Mr. Warner, the Armed Services chairman, had unequivocal praise for the administration’s North Korea policy.

“The president was right: Negotiations must be left to the six-party talks. Conversations on the side take place, as all of us know, in diplomatic areas. That’s fine, conversations,” Mr. Warner said. “Negotiations, he’s been right, leave it to the six. Because we do not want the other powers to point to us and say, ‘You didn’t handle this right, USA. It’s your fault; now you take care of the problem.’ ”

But Mr. Levin added that a mix of direct and group negotiations was an alternative.

“That is not inconsistent with our having direct talks with the North Koreans,” he said. “As a matter of fact, the Chinese and the South Koreans are allies, and South Korea wants us to have one-on-one, direct discussions with the North Koreans.”

Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, the top U.S. nuclear negotiator, arrived in Hong Kong yesterday for talks on freezing North Korean bank accounts in Macau, a special administrative region of China, according to a spokesman for the U.S. consulate-general. Mr. Hill’s visit occurred on the heels of a regional visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The U.S. banned transactions between Macao-based Banco Delta Asia and American financial institutions in September 2005 after accusing Banco Delta Asia clients of engaging in smuggling and counterfeiting operations on behalf of North Korea. North Korea has denied the charge and has said it will not return to the six-party talks until the ban is removed.

Recent reports have indicated that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told a Chinese envoy that he had no “immediate plans” to carry out further nuclear tests, but that those plans hedged on the level of U.S. pressure. The North Korean dictator has repeatedly stated concern that the U.S. intends to overthrow his regime through military force.

After her trip, Miss Rice said she doubts Pyongyang will honor such a promise and that Chinese officials had not informed her of any proffered deal.

This article was based in part on wire-service reports.


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