Korea crisis awaits multistate push

South Korea's president visits Washington next week, amid doubts about the North's nuclear claims.

The United States will not attend another round of talks with North Korea unless China hosts the meeting, unless Japan, South Korea, and possibly Russia are included, or if it confirms that the Kim Jong Il regime has reprocessed the cache of plutonium fuel rods that it has claimed to, diplomatic sources told the Monitor.

"A second round [of talks] is up to China," says a senior US diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "If the Chinese want to host it, we are ready. But we won't attend unless it is larger and genuinely multilateral."

The evolving US position on North Korea - and an evident eagerness in Seoul and Tokyo to join a process started by Beijing - builds on lengthy US efforts at a multilateral, diplomatic answer to the North's two nuclear programs. For months, Asian states had urged the US to engage in one-on-one talks with Pyongyang. But US officials say a nuclear Korea and the North's ability to sell fissionable material is serious enough to require a concert of Asian nations to pressure Mr. Kim, with China playing a central role.

Yet the position also suggests a disbelief in Washington that North Korean scientists could, undetected, reprocess some 8,000 spent fuel rods, as well as a willingness to overlook that claim as a negotiating position - though US officials have ordered an intelligence review to see if it is possible.

"The North Koreans sought to put as much on the table as possible [in the first meeting]," the diplomat says. "They are expert at slicing the salami and getting something for nothing. But that isn't going to happen this time.

"We expect something specific and concrete," and it must be "complete and verifiable," the source added. "The ball is in North Korea's court."

Talks with North Korea held in Beijing April 23 came via a diplomatic breakthrough by China after a seven-month nuclear standoff that has thrown Asia into a deepening security crisis. In Beijing, a North Korean official told US envoy James Kelly that his country possessed nuclear weapons - the first such admission. He also said that the North had "almost finished reprocessing" fuel rods that were unsealed after Kim kicked out UN inspectors on New Year's Day, according to sources familiar with details of the meeting.

Since then, Asian states and US officials have scrambled to decipher the meeting. New South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun visits President Bush next week in Washington for the first time - a significant moment for the two allies to coordinate efforts. All sides in the crisis are feeling what might be called a "big squeeze."

Time is a factor, since Kim could ostensibly turn his plutonium into weapons-grade material in months. The standoff, with the US not taking military options or sanctions off the table, also involves risky gamesmanship: North Korea says it will treat sanctions as an act of war.

Washington policymakers are in trench warfare over Korea, between Defense Department hard-liners and State Department moderates. Beijing, for its part, wants to find a way to continue talks without giving the impression to North Korea that it is publicly choosing between Washington and Pyongyang. South Korea's economy is hard hit and its policy of engagement is stymied - pending resolution of the nuclear issue. Japanese are feeling "angst" about the North, as one source put it, and worry that a long delay will force an aggressive new defense posture in Tokyo that will create fears in China.

In North Korea, sources say Kim is facing internal pressures to deliver money and food. The North Korean people are squeezed due to food shortages and a disastrous economy partly funded by drug and counterfeiting mafias that may be state sponsored, according to Japanese foreign ministry sources. A North Korean ship allegedly carrying about 100 pounds of heroin was seized off the coast of Australia two days ago.

The main obstacle down the negotiations road may well be verification, analysts say. Both Kim and his generals are unlikely to accept inspectors into closed, highly guarded regions. But some US officials hold out hope from the Beijing talks that Kim desires to move his country off a US list of regimes like Cuba and Libya that are considered hostile.

Meanwhile, particularly in some quarters of the Japanese and South Korean press, doubt has been shed on whether North Korean officials really did confess to having a nuclear program. An opinion writer in Japan described Assistant Secretary Kelly as "listening to fairies," in the encounter with North Korean counterpart Ri Gun in Beijing at a dinner reception. But US sources say the dinner communication was straightforward and unambiguous.

North Korea had hoped the Beijing talks would be essentially bilateral, with China only playing host. During the first opportunity to speak informally, sources say, Mr. Ri and his interpreter approached Kelly, who was standing with his longtime Korean interpreter and David Straub, director of the Office of Korean Affairs at the State Department, also fluent in Korean. All three men heard Ri claim that the North possessed weapons, and that these would not be possible to negotiate away.

Both Mr. Straub and Kelly's interpreter immediately went over their notes, and agreed on what Ri said, according to a high level US diplomat.

Later in formal talks, Ri said "We are almost finished reprocessing" the fuel rods, and insisted the plutonium would be kept. This statement was the most surprising, sources say, since it was made in front of Chinese officials, who know that plutonium reprocessing crosses a "red line" for the Americans.

Days before the April 23 talks, Pyongyang official news asserted that the fuel rods were reprocessed, though there were competing interpretations of the report. Diplomatic sources affirm that North Koreans had told Russian officials a week before talks that they had completed reprocessing.

"We are telling the Americans, 'don't be shocked by these strong statements from the North,' " says a Japanese diplomat. "We are concerned about too strong a reaction from the US." Japan however, does take the position that if reprocessing can be confirmed, they will aid in taking the issue to the UN Security Council.

"We may view [North Korean admissions] as a negotiating position, we are still talking about that," says a US diplomat. "But it shows a mind-set of denial to say it didn't happen."

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