North Korea talks disarmament, U.S. official says

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 29, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - Despite its threats of nuclear tests, North Korea caught the attention of U.S. officials last week by also expressing a willingness to dispose of its missiles and nuclear weapons programs.

The North Koreans told U.S. diplomats in Beijing that in exchange for disarmament, they would insist on a long list of concessions from the United States, including energy assistance.

A senior administration official said Monday much of what the North Koreans proposed was unacceptable because it would restore agreements that had not worked.

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The official indicated, however, that the disarmament proposal offered some glimmer of hope in what was an otherwise belligerent presentation to U.S. and Chinese officials last week by North Korean negotiator Ri Gun.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Monday the United States is reviewing the proposal and is comparing notes with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

The North Koreans ''did put forward a plan that would ultimately deal with their nuclear capability and their missile activities. But they, of course, expect something considerable in return,'' Powell said.

Powell's somewhat hopeful account of the meetings contrasted with initial accounts last week by other U.S. officials, who highlighted the negative aspects of the North Korean presentation.

These included a North Korean acknowledgment for the first time that the country has nuclear weapons and was contemplating exporting or even using them, depending on U.S. behavior.

In South Korea, government sources were quoted in media reports as saying there were sufficient positive aspects in the North Korean proposal to make it worth pursuing further.

The North Korean offer to swap its military might for economic benefits echoed a similar proposal three months ago by President Bush.

Bush said that if North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, the United States would be willing to help the country with its food and energy needs.

The administration has said repeatedly that the North must eliminate its weapons programs in a verifiable way before the United States would consider economic benefits.

Verification of the North's compliance with any agreement could be difficult in the extreme. As an example, the United States has no idea of the location of the North's uranium-based nuclear program, which it acknowledged to U.S. officials last fall.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said it would be a mistake to focus on the belligerent aspects of North Korea's presentation in Beijing because they represent only part of a much larger whole.

It is in this context that the administration will review last week's talks and decide on next steps, Boucher said.

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly led the U.S. delegation to the talks and is back in Washington after sharing his impressions of the outcome with officials in South Korea and Japan.