China works out U.S., N. Korea talks
SEOUL, South Korea -- The United States and North Korea will try to resolve their six-month standoff over Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons program in talks arranged by China, the communist North's closest ally, U.S. and South Korean officials said Wednesday.
The Beijing talks could happen as early as next week, officials said. Japanese media, citing unnamed sources, said they would start April 23.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the agreement to hold talks was good news but added that an early breakthrough was not in the offing. "We believe this is the beginning of a long, intense process of discussion," Powell said.
"We will lay out clearly our concerns about their nuclear weapons development programs and other weapons of mass destruction, of their proliferation activities, missile programs," among other issues, he said.
China will participate in the discussions, the first between Washington and Pyongyang since U.S. officials said in October that North Korea admitted running a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Washington has called for multilateral talks to resolve the issue, and renewed its promise Wednesday to try to bring other nations -- especially South Korea and Japan -- into talks.
Pyongyang earlier insisted on negotiations only with Washington, but agreed last week to allow China at the table.
The talks likely will cool tensions on the Korean Peninsula, roiled for months by sabre-rattling rhetoric from North Korea and massive, joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.
Powell said the mood on the peninsula is one of relative quiet, adding that this could auger well for the talks. "We are hopeful that nothing will happen that would make the political environment difficult," he said.
As for the North's penchant for delivering inflammatory statements, Powell said, "They seem to be not more provocative than usual. By the standards of normal discourse between us and the DPRK, it is relatively calm."
Yet there is a sense of urgency about the situation because North Korea, already believed to have one or two nuclear weapons, could extract enough plutonium for several more bombs within months if it begins reprocessing existing stocks of spent nuclear fuel.
North Korea has accused the United States of planning to invade once the war in Iraq is over. President Bush -- who once described North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" with Iran and Iraq -- has said he wants to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully, but he has not ruled out a military solution.
North Korea has a history of engaging in tough bargaining in prolonged negotiations.
Powell has said the quick U.S. military success in Iraq may have influenced Pyongyang's thinking on opening diplomatic discussions.
"The one thing that is absolutely clear, is that at whatever level it starts, and with whatever attendance, it has to ultimately encompass the views and thoughts of all the neighbors in the region," Powell has said.
In Seoul, South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan welcomed the talks but demanded that the meetings be expanded in the future to include Japan, Russia and South Korea. Seoul and Tokyo are considered key donors for the aid package that likely would be part of any deal with the impoverished North.
"It is of paramount importance that talks begin to lay the foundation for a peaceful solution to this problem," Yoon said. "But we won't share the burden resulting from any talks that we do not participate in."
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi welcomed multilateral talks.
"It's good for talks to begin; the countries involved will work with North Korea," he said. "This is something Japan desires, too."
China first proposed the three-way talks in March, and the United States accepted the offer after consulting with South Korea, Yoon said. North Korea agreed last week.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said he believed North Korea "will take the road of reform and openness, if economic aid and its political system are guaranteed."
China's involvement in the talks is a victory for the Bush administration.
Chinese diplomats repeatedly have delayed a discussion of the crisis in the U.N. Security Council. Last week, after agreeing to discuss the topic in the council, China blocked a motion by Washington to condemn North Korea.
In the talks with Washington, North Korea is expected to repeat its demands for a nonaggression treaty. U.S. officials say they have ruled that out but still could consider a written security guarantee of some form.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was encouraged by the development.
Annan and his personal envoy, Maurice Strong, "will continue to lend their full support to this process while concentrating on humanitarian and longer-term development needs" of North Korea, U.N. deputy spokeswoman Hua Jiang said in New York.
The U.S. delegation to the talks will be led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who met with officials in Pyongyang in October. It was then that the United States accused North Korea of having a secret program to make nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 treaty freezing its nuclear facilities.
The United States and its allies subsequently stopped the oil shipments included in that 1994 deal. North Korea retaliated by pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and moving to restart a nuclear reactor.