Bush - 'Good chance' of diplomacy with Pyongyang

Monday, April 21, 2003

CRAWFORD, Texas -- Days ahead of scheduled talks with North Korea, President Bush on Sunday gave diplomatic pressure a "good chance" of succeeding in coaxing Pyongang to end its tension-producing nuclear weapons programs.

Along with the United States, regional neighbors China, Japan and South Korea are opposed to a nuclear-armed North Korea. Bush cited that unanimity of purpose -- if not of strategy -- as reason for optimism.

"I believe that all four of us working together have a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals," Bush told reporters.

The president, taking a five-day vacation at his central Texas ranch, spoke after attending Easter services at nearby Fort Hood.

He also lauded China's accession to host talks with North Korea, planned for as early as this week, as a good sign.

"The key thing in the North Korea agenda is that China is assuming a very important responsibility," he said. "China's policy is for a nuclear-weapons-free peninsula. And now that they're engaged in the process, it makes it more likely that's going to occur."

The United States has insisted on a multilateral approach to defuse the nuclear standoff, rather than the direct U.S.-North Korea engagement that Pyongang had been demanding.

But the talks -- which would be the first substantive discussions since U.S. officials said in October that North Korea had acknowledged the existence of a uranium-based nuclear weapons program -- were thrown into doubt on Friday when North Korea appeared to announce it had taken steps that could yield six to eight bombs within months.

Later, it became unclear whether the work had actually begun or the translation was faulty. U.S. and South Korean officials said there is no proof that reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods was underway, and suggested the report may have been a mistranslation of the vaguely worded Korean version.

The United States believes North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs and can extract enough plutonium from the fuel rods to make several more within months.

Bush, asked about the talks announced last week, did not directly address whether they will take place.

And a Bush spokeswoman said afterward that the president's reference to China's involvement should not be taken as an indication the talks are definitely on. Consultations with allies in the region continue and no final decision has been made, deputy press secretary Claire Buchan said.

Earlier Sunday, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said he thought the meeting would go ahead.

"China's the key here, and China has made some significant changes here just recently in their attitude to North Korea," Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told "Fox News Sunday."

Bush's upbeat outlook on what Roberts called the "number one" security threat facing the United States contrasted, however, with another angry pronouncement from North Korea.

In the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, the communist government said Sunday that North and South Koreans "should firmly unite as one to resolutely smash the U.S. moves for a war of aggression in order to protect the destiny of the nation and the future of a reunified country."

The statement underscored the huge task ahead for the talks, if they proceed.

North Korea repeatedly has accused the United States of planning to attack it after the Iraq war, a charge denied by Washington. The North has often tried to drive a wedge between South Korea and its chief ally, the United States.

And though North Korea has never admitted or denied having nuclear bombs, it has closely guarded what it sees as its right to develop them.

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