WORLD / America

US considering new approach to N.Korea - NYT
Updated: 2006-05-18 11:41

The United States is considering a new approach to North Korea that would include beginning negotiations on a peace treaty at the same time as six-country talks on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear programs, the New York Times reported late on Wednesday.

US President George W. Bush is very likely to approve the new approach, which had been hotly debated by different factions within his administration, the Times said on its Web site.

But the change would only happen if North Korea returned to the talks, which have been stalled for months by its refusal to participate.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, was in Singapore on Wednesday, U.S. officials told Reuters. South Korean media reported that he would soon visit their country but that could not be immediately confirmed.

The new thinking about North Korea would coincide with efforts by the United States and other major powers, so far fruitless, to persuade Iran to drop its planned nuclear program.

Many officials and experts are concerned that Iran draws inspiration from North Korea, which has suffered few international penalties since declaring that it possesses nuclear weapons and will continue to make nuclear fuel.

North Korea has long demanded a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean war and the administration has said previously it would be willing to consider working on such an agreement.


Many officials have been hoping Pyongyang would collapse but experts say that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

The administration initially insisted the North dismantle its nuclear programs before receiving any economic or political returns but has softened that position over time. The latest move to offer simultaneous peace treaty talks and nuclear negotiations looks to be a further modification.

However, it is unclear whether this new offer will alter Pyongyang's stance. It has refused to return to six-country negotiations on the nuclear issue since an inconclusive session last November.

In recent interviews with Reuters, two senior U.S. officials were very pessimistic about persuading the North to return to the table and said they did not expect any movement until after Bush leaves office at the earliest.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on the New York Times report.

But he told Reuters the North still had not made the fundamental decision to abandon its nuclear program and had not agreed on a date to restart the nuclear negotiations.
McCormack noted that a joint statement approved September 19 by the six parties -- including the United States, North and South Korea, China, Russia and Japan -- foreshadowed talks on a broad range of issues, including a new peace treaty, within the context of the six-party process.

In that statement, the North promised to give up its nuclear weapons. In exchange, other parties expressed a willingness to provide oil, energy aid and security guarantees and said North Korea might be allowed a nuclear energy program in future if it met strict safeguards.

One day later, the North announced it would not give up its nuclear weapons programs until Washington provided it with civilian atomic energy reactors, significantly undermining the Sept 19 deal.

Without confirming details of the Times story, a senior U.S. official acknowledged that top Bush advisers had reached "broad agreement on how to proceed" with North Korea.

But he said the central point remains that "the North Koreans are still not back at the talks."

U.S. officials have estimated that the North Koreans have made fuel for perhaps as many as nine nuclear weapons, although whether they actually produced the bombs is unclear.