Thursday, August 28, 2003

North Korea startled the representatives at six-party talks in Beijing by stating it had nuclear weapons and was prepared to test them, a U.S. administration official said yesterday.

The Pyongyang team later backed off its fierce rhetoric, the official said, and multilateral talks involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia aimed at ending the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula were continuing today.

The White House moved quickly to downplay the flare-up, with spokeswoman Claire Buchan saying North Korea had a history of making “inflammatory comments.”

“The assessment from our team that’s on the ground in Beijing is that this is a positive session,” she said.

Agence France-Presse, citing Russian and South Korean delegations, said North Korea yesterday emphasized its goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

After the second day of talks closed, Beijing made the following announcement:

“The parties reiterated that denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is the common goal of all sides and the nuclear issue should be resolved peacefully through diplomatic means.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry put the statement on its Web site.

Meanwhile, all sides were reported ready to meet again within the next two months as the current round of talks entered its third and final day.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said today a further round of six-way talks on North Korea’s nuclear program was likely to take place in mid-October in Beijing.

In an unsourced report from Beijing, Yonhap said the six countries would issue a communique pledging to keep talking.

“The six countries agreed that it is important to hold the next round of meetings as soon as possible to maintain the current momentum,” Yonhap reported.

Earlier, in what appeared to be an angry outburst, the North Korean delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong-il said Pyongyang was ready to demonstrate its nuclear-arms capability.

According to the U.S. official, during a pull-aside that the U.S. delegation had with the North Koreans at the end of the first day of talks, the North Koreans repeated their desire for a nonaggression treaty with the United States.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s team responded that such a treaty was not in the works, leaving unsaid what Pyongyang could get — a statement or some security guarantee, the official said. Mr. Kelly’s delegation insisted on the need for a verifiable end to Pyongyang’s nuclear program and referred the North Koreans back to the U.S. opening statement.

“The North Koreans appeared to overreact. They said ‘We have nukes and we’re going to demonstrate that we have them,’” the official said.

“We were very calm, and in the course of the day, according to the Chinese, the [North] Koreans backed off this hard rhetoric,” the official said. “Later in the course of the day, they softened [the rhetoric] quite a bit.”

State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker refused to characterize the talks beyond saying the delegations are expected to meet again today. He added that no decision had been taken regarding another round of talks.

Russian media had reported that the six participants to the Beijing-hosted talks had reached an agreement to meet again within two months.

“At this point, there are no decisions on that. These talks aren’t over, since the delegations expect to meet again tomorrow. So, we’ll just have to see where we go from there,” Mr. Reeker told reporters.

The six delegations met the second day for about four hours, the spokesman said. He said the U.S. delegation also met with the South Korean and Japanese delegations before the session, and with the Russians afterward.

The administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, downplayed what he said was just a spike in North Korean rhetoric.

“They’ve been threatening these kinds of things in the past. I don’t think it’s new. It reflects that they haven’t carefully read our statement and our proposal.

“They rushed to judgment without paying careful enough attention to what we were saying,” he said.

The six-way talks aim to defuse the tensions sparked by North Korea’s admission to Mr. Kelly late last year that it had revived its nuclear-weapons programs, in violation of promises made under an accord with the Clinton administration in 1994.

The United States is demanding an end to the North’s nuclear programs and the readmission of international inspectors.

North Korea has insisted that Washington agree to a nonaggression treaty and economic assistance before Pyongyang discusses its nuclear programs.

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