Monday, January 12, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday expressed growing confidence that stalled talks over the North Korean nuclear crisis can be revived soon, even as two private American delegations that just visited the North offered few public clues about the state of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.

Chinese diplomats will be at the State Department today to discuss a possible new round of six-nation talks in Beijing, which have been on hold since August.

“We think that all parties are pretty fully engaged in this process,” department spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday. “The discussions that are being had between all the parties are serious and positive, and we’re hopeful that talks can be resumed.”

Beijing originally hoped to convene another round of the talks — which include North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan — before the end of last year. Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan told a Japanese newspaper yesterday he now hoped to hold a new round of negotiations next month.

Mr. Ereli said U.S. officials have received only a brief description of the trip to North Korea by two private delegations last week. The delegations, which toured the North’s suspect Yongbyon nuclear facility and held high-level talks with North Korean officials, return to Washington later this week.

The Americans were the first outsiders to visit the site since the sharp escalation of the Korean Peninsula crisis in 2002. The United States accuses the North of reviving forbidden nuclear-arms programs at Yongbyon and other sites, and has demanded the North destroy them.

Pyongyang in turn has sent mixed signals on its nuclear capabilities, and demanded economic aid and a nonaggression pact from the United States as its price for giving up its nuclear efforts.

The official North Korean news agency yesterday repeated Pyongyang’s offer to “freeze” its nuclear programs if the United States and its allies agree to economic compensation.

In Seoul, two U.S. Senate staffers who visited the Yongbyon site briefed South Korean government officials on their trip, but said a full public airing of their findings would be reserved for a Jan. 20 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

North Korea’s state media said the private U.S. trips were designed to erase any doubts about the strength of the secretive, one-party state’s nuclear deterrent. The Senate staffers, Keith Luse and Frank Jannuzi, are not nuclear specialists, and South Korean officials said the briefings they had given were inconclusive.

“They said they were not scientists and could not fully understand what they had seen,” Wi Sung-lac, the South Korean Foreign Ministry’s director-general of North American affairs, told reporters in Seoul.

The second delegation to Yongbyon included Siegfried Hecker, who headed the U.S. government’s Los Alamos nuclear research lab from 1987 to 1995. That delegation has not commented publicly on its five-day trip to the North.

In Washington, a noted U.S. specialist said North Korea’s halting economic reforms, which have focused first on reform of the military services, could make a deal to eliminate the North’s nuclear programs more difficult.

Under one reform scenario, North Korea would cut its vast conventional military forces as part of the economic-modernization program, leaving it more dependent than ever on its nuclear weapons to deter its adversaries, according to Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Economics.

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