North Korea to 'Consider' U.S. Offer on Security


Published: October 26, 2003

TOKYO, Oct. 25 — In a marked shift, North Korea said Saturday that it would evaluate President Bush's offer of a security guarantee signed by its neighbors and the United States, which Mr. Bush made provided that the North dismantles its nuclear weapons program.

Earlier in the week, North Korea had dismissed President Bush's offer as "laughable." Now that statement seems to have been a rote reaction by the North's propaganda machine.

The carefully worded Saturday statement, which was carried by North Korea's official news agency, omitted the usual criticism of the United States. But it did not set a date to resume six-party talks, which began with one session in Beijing in August.

"We are ready to consider Bush's remarks on the written assurances of nonaggression if they are based on the intention to coexist," the Korean Central News Agency said, quoting an unidentified Foreign Ministry spokesman.

It stressed the principle of "simultaneous actions." That has meant diplomatic recognition by the United States, building nuclear power plants and foreign aid in return for North Korea's abandoning its bomb program.

The C.I.A. has said that North Korea already has one or two nuclear weapons, and this summer the North has admitted to building some. It recently threatened to test a bomb.

Next week, Wu Bangguo, the head of China's legislature, is to visit Pyongyang, the North Korea capital. He will be the highest-ranking Chinese dignitary to visit the North in several years.

With China increasingly seen as the deal maker in the North Korea standoff, the North may have released its statement before Mr. Wu's arrival to avoid any impression that it was acting at the bidding of the Chinese.

China now maintains close economic ties with South Korea, but it has longstanding links to the North and great leverage on it. The largest supplier of food and oil to North Korea, China flexed its muscle earlier this year by briefly cutting off the oil.

China is frustrated that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has not followed the economic model laid out by Beijing. China, which fears that that waves of impoverished North Koreans will cross the land border between the nations this winter, has reportedly stationed 150,000 troops along the frontier.

If North Korea follows through on the Saturday announcement, it could mark a breakthrough in the yearlong standoff with the United States.

Mr. Bush has refused to conduct direct talks with the North, as the State Department and many outside experts have urged. He has insisted that the only way to press North Korea was to bring all of its neighbors into the process, especially China. Mr. Bush has encouraged China to take on the role of both intermediary and negotiating partner.

But until last week, during his trip to Asia, Mr. Bush refused to offer North Korea anything concrete in return for giving up its nuclear weapons program, and for surrendering its weapons and stockpiles.

That changed in Bangkok last Sunday, when Mr. Bush indicated for the first time that the United States would offer the North a written security guarantee that would probably also be signed by the other parties in the talks: China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. "We will not have a treaty, if that's what you're asking," he said during a meeting with Thailand's prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. "That's off the table."

The North previously demanded a formal treaty, ratified by the Senate. Mr. Bush would not agree, and as a matter of political reality, it is highly unlikely that the Senate would approve a treaty with a nation that still has no diplomatic relations with the United States, and that has not, in legal terms, agreed on a treaty ending the Korean War.

A senior White House official said today that the Bush administration was notified of North Korea's new position through the North's representatives at the United Nations on Friday. The official said the administration was still examining the statement and had reached no conclusions.

Next week, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking defector from North Korea, is to arrive in Washington and testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is expected to give Congress and news organizations details of the inner workings of the Kim Jong Il government. Once a close aide to Kim Jong Il, Mr. Hwang is considered to have been the architect of North Korea's ideology of self-reliance, known as juche.

Discussing North Korea, Mr. Bush said "perhaps there are other ways we can look at" the problem, and his aides sketched out a plan that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has been working on for months, involving the security guarantee among the several partners.

The theory, one senior administration official said, is that if the North reneged, and refused to dismantle its nuclear arms infrastructure, including a plant at Yongbyon, it would be defying not only the United States but also all of its primary allies. "We think it is a lot harder for the North Koreans to offer their traditional gesture of defiance to everyone at once," the official said.

One channel may open up next week, when Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, is to lead a Congressional group to Pyongyang, his second visit since June.

"I was told in June that if we came back we would be allowed to meet Kim Jong Il and to visit Yongbyon," Representative Weldon said in a telephone interview. "My concern is that we not allow ourselves to get sucked into a military conflict with the North. I believe we have to exhaust every possible bit of diplomacy."

Timing is crucial to the Bush plan. Mr. Bush has made it clear that while the North will learn the details of the security guarantee, it will not take effect until the country's weapons program is being dismantled, its nuclear material is being shipped out of the country and inspectors have free run of the North.


(from New York Times)