North Korea may get aid, security pledge
North Korea will be offered economic aid in return for a pledge to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities, according to senior Asian and American officials. But they said the offer was expected to be presented by South Korea, not the United States, in talks beginning on Wednesday in Beijing.
The informal agreement between Washington and its Asian partners on how to approach North Korea represents a partial retreat by the Bush administration, which has long insisted that it would not reward the North for simply freezing its nuclear weapons program. Administration officials argue that no aid will go to North Korea until it pledges to move past a freeze and actually dismantle every part of its nuclear program in a manner that can be verified.
An Asian official said the proposed aid program would resume fuel oil shipments that were halted in late 2002, after the United States discovered that North Korea had violated a pledge it made eight years earlier to freeze the nuclear weapons program in return for energy assistance.
By extending the new offer through its Asian partners, which have long argued for compromise, President Bush can argue that he is not giving in to what he has called nuclear blackmail.
The hope is to move North Korea from a freeze to the next and most difficult stage, taking apart a nuclear program that it has been building up for three decades.
There were hints as early as last August that Washington might be receptive to an Asian offer of incentives to the North.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell confirmed in an interview late on Monday that the United States would offer no economic benefit to the North in the first phase of a plan to dismantle its weapons.
"I would certainly like to see an articulation at this meeting that they are prepared to give up their program in an irreversible, verifiable and complete way," he said. "How we start that, they might be able to freeze, but it can't be a freeze standing alone. It has to be a freeze connected to a total."
He said the only American plan to offer something to North Korea at the talks would involve some kind of security assurances in which all parties in the talks - including China, Japan, South Korea and Russia - would pledge not to attack the North.
Many Asian and American experts and officials say that in recent months the North has moved away from its initial demand for such security pledges to a more urgent demand for economic and energy aid.
An Asian official said that it would be unlikely for South Korea to be very specific about the energy offer, but that it would probably be only a small fraction of the 500,000 tons of fuel oil a year halted in 2002.
The offer reflects the difference of approach toward North Korea between the United States and its partners, especially China.
Like South Korea, China believes it is important to present incentives to the North and not force it to acknowledge its nuclear program in every detail. The best way to get progress, they say, is to coax it along gently.
An Asian diplomat disclosed, for example, that China agreed this month to build a bottle manufacturing plant in North Korea in honor of President Kim Jong Il's birthday as a way to get the North to come to a new round of talks.
Administration officials said Mr. Bush was unlikely to object to the offer after it was made.
"If it doesn't cross what might be considered an objectionable red line of ours, then I don't know that we would object to what another party might want to do," said a senior administration official, referring to the South Korean offer.
An Asian official said the North would have to pause for a moment before reversing course. He said it might be asked to go from a "freeze" to actual dismantlement in a very short time.
"The metaphor that everybody is using is that if you are in forward gear, and if your car is moving forward, and you want to make it go backward, you have to stop the car first," the Asian official said. "The U.S. thinks that you shouldn't have to stop it for very long. We would like it to be a few months."
Diplomats consider the new approach to have great resonance with North Korea. Both American and Asian officials say they have gotten signals through China that the North may be more forthcoming than some had thought possible.
Administration officials say it is especially important to get North Korea to acknowledge the existence of - and to pledge to dismantle - all its nuclear programs. At present, it acknowledges it has a plutonium facility that administration officials believe may have produced one or two bombs.
But in addition, intelligence reaching the United States in 2002 suggested that North Korea also had a nuclear weapons program involving highly enriched uranium, a technology that it is believed to have built up with the help of Pakistan.
Administration officials say recent disclosures about Pakistan's wide network of sales of sophisticated technology - involving Libya and Iran as well as North Korea - has bolstered their case against North Korea. The disclosures have also strengthened the administration's determination that the North dismantle the program for enriching uranium as well as the one for plutonium. The North has denied a uranium-enriching operation, and American intelligence officials say they do not know the location of the site.
It is not clear how explicit the demands for dismantling all those programs will be. China is said to believe that it would be better to demand a kind of blanket pledge that does not force North Korea to back away immediately from its denials that it has a uranium facility.
Some administration officials also say that intelligence has been assembled quickly in recent days from Pakistan, and that negotiators in Beijing may wish to confront North Korea with evidence of its program if it continues to deny that one exists.