- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Obama administration said Sunday it is willing to hold direct talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons if it first resumes international negotiations.

Despite reports of his declining health, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il seems fully in charge of the reclusive communist country, White House national security adviser James L. Jones said.

Mr. Jones said former President Bill Clinton passed no official messages and made no promises during his mission last week to bring home two American journalists convicted of and held in prison for illegally entering North Korea.

Making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, Mr. Jones added few details. He did say Mr. Clinton “was able to convey his personal views of the issue of the moment, which is making sure nuclear weapons do not appear on the Korean peninsula.”

The North has developed a nuclear weapons capability, tested two devices and fired missiles theoretically able to carry a nuclear warhead.

Mr. Jones said North Korea has said it wants better relations, and both Mr. Jones and U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice said the United States is ready to resume the kind of direct talks held in the latter years of the Bush administration.

“North Koreans have indicated that they would like a new relation,” Mr. Jones said. “They’ve always advocated for bilateral engagement. We have put on the table in the context of the talks we would be happy to do that if, in fact, they would rejoin the talks.”

North Korea agreed to give up its weapons and the ability to make more, but later walked away from six-nation negotiations and kicked out international inspectors.

Mr. Clinton “did press home the fact that if North Korea really wants to rejoin the community of nations, the way forward is not to produce a nuclear weapons and (that it should) rejoin six-party talks,” Mr. Jones said.

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Kim held more than three hours of discussions, but Mr. Jones said North Korea got nothing out of the visit except a photo opportunity. Photos of the visit include Mr. Clinton standing with Mr. Kim, who is noticeably thinner following what may have been a stroke last year. There have been reports of a succession struggle in North Korea.

“Kim appeared to be control of his government and sounded very reasoned,” Mr. Jones said. “He seemed in control of his faculties.”

Ms. Rice said the administration is “debriefing” the former president.

“He obviously heard what Kim Jong-il had to say. And what that contributes to our understanding of what’s going on in North Korea, I’d rather not get into in this discussion, but obviously we look forward to a full analysis of the observations and analysis of what President Clinton brought back,” she said.

Ms. Rice said Mr. Clinton’s mission does not make her more hopeful about a diplomatic opening with the North, but it doesn’t leave her less optimistic either.

She rejected criticism from a former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, that the mission walked dangerously close to negotiations with terrorists.

“That’s, in fact, a ridiculous statement,” Ms. Rice said.

Mr. Clinton’s diplomatic trip to North Korea secured the release of two women — Laura Ling and Euna Lee — jailed in North Korea nearly five months ago. The women work for former Vice President Al Gore’s San Francisco-based Current TV.

Mr. Jones made the comments on “Fox News Sunday” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Ms. Rice appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

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