Wednesday, February 27, 2008

BEIJING — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States should consider future cultural exchanges with North Korea, even if last year’s deal to end the North’s nuclear programs falls through.

Speaking in Beijing minutes after the New York Philharmonic played “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the Communist Party elite in Pyongyang, North Korea, Miss Rice said cultural programs would help promote the North’s “opening to the rest of the world.”

“I’d like to see North Koreans come to the United States,” she told reporters during an East Asian tour aimed at breaking the latest nuclear impasse.

Reporters asked Miss Rice whether future cultural exchanges should be arranged even if an October agreement in six-nation talks collapses.

Miss Rice replied: “I believe that cultural exchange is something that we ought to be looking at in any case.”

In doing so, she appeared to break new ground in U.S. policy.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino played down the significance of the concert and urged North Korea to meet its nuclear obligations.

“They have a ways to go in order to meet those obligations. Once we get to those, we might then be able to see normalized relations begin, and part of normalized relations would include possible cultural exchanges, like the one you saw today,” Mrs. Perino told reporters, according to Reuters news agency.

However, when asked directly whether future U.S. cultural visits should be ruled out until North Korea complies, she said: “No.”

Miss Rice said she has no plans to visit North Korea during her trip to East Asia to meet officials in South Korea, China and Japan.

Miss Rice headed today to Japan on the last leg of a regional tour aimed at squeezing North Korea over the stuttering pace of its nuclear disarmament.

A Japanese newspaper reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also on a visit to Tokyo, will share intelligence with Japanese leaders on purported North Korean military cooperation with Iran and Syria.

Miss Rice is expected to meet the Israeli leader in Japan tomorrow.

She is attempting to resolve an impasse in the denuclearization talks prompted by North Korea’s failure to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to provide a declaration of all its nuclear programs, facilities and materials as promised in an Oct. 3 agreement.

“I know that we focus overwhelmingly on denuclearization, and that is clearly the issue here, but the United States is also concerned about the North Korean people,” Miss Rice said.

Still, she noted: “It’s a long way from playing that concert to changing the nature of the politics of North Korea.”

The New York Philharmonic, the first major American cultural group to visit the isolated country, performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” the North Korean national anthem and George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” among other pieces.

In seeking help from China on nuclear negotiations, Miss Rice said, “I’m expecting from China what I’m expecting from others — that we will use all influence possible with the North Koreans to convince them that it’s time to move forward.”

Beijing’s leaders, including President Hu Jintao, promised Miss Rice they will do all they can, but also urged Washington to be more flexible in its demand that the declaration include the North’s past programs.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said all negotiating partners — the United States, China, Japan, Russia, and North and South Korea — should “create favorable conditions to overcome the current difficulties and move forward the six-party process as soon as possible.”

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