US softens tone toward N. Korea

Negotiators unveiled a new approach Wednesday, offering security assurance for dismantlement of weaponry.

With the third set of Korean nuclear talks potentially entering US preelection doldrums, US envoys here Wednesday proposed what they described as a new formula for moving the process along. Essentially, the proposal, which officials drew just short of calling a concession, would allow a three-month "preparatory period" for North Korea to begin dismantling what are thought to be two different nuclear programs, using plutonium and uranium.

The White House initiative seems to suggest a tactically kinder and gentler approach to the hard-core Stalinist regime, something desired by at least two other members of the six-nation talks. It came about partly from a sense among US officials that Washington was wrongly being framed as the hostile or intractable actor in the talks.

In the formula, the North would have three months to list its nuclear activities, cease operations, secure current fissile material, and disable any dangerous weaponry. In exchange the US would offer security assurances backed by other members of the talks, and would not object to the delivery of heavy fuel oil to the North by Russia, Japan, China, and South Korea, though the US would not itself send energy.

"After three years of not having a coherent negotiating position, this may be the beginning of the administration developing one," says Ashton Carter of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "I don't see anything surprising in all this - except that the administration is finally doing it."

In large part, the seven-page proposal, read by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to the envoys from five Asian nations, was a clear effort by the White House to back off its previous "CVID" language. CVID, often cited in the early days of the crisis by the White House, stands for "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" of the North's nuclear activity.

It includes destroying a secret North Korean enriched-uranium program that US officials reiterated Wednesday was the precipitating cause of the current crisis. China and South Korea in particular felt the use of CVID was an obstacle to productive talks.

Yet privately, a senior US envoy here told reporters: "CVID is an abbreviation that comes into a lot of use. But there are a lot of ways to describe this process. We don't think it necessary to use the term."

In February, in the second round of failed talks, one senior US official commented: "CVID is not our mantra anymore. It is the mantra of China, Japan, [and South] Korea."

Yet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il reportedly waiting for November to determine who, and what policy, he will be facing on the American side, China and South Korea have been urging the US to at least appear more willing to engage in a series of steps.

These Beijing-hosted talks, which are expected to last from June 23-27, represent the third attempt to engage the inscrutable Mr. Kim into a process by which he forgoes any nuclear ambition. US officials looked a bit tired after Wednesday's talks, which did not start until 3 p.m., and there have been whispers of some frustration on the team.

"We are at a third session and we feel it is time to get specific about what will happen," one senior official commented. But he admitted, "[We] don't know whether progress will be achieved in this new round."

In October 2002, a North Korean diplomat admitted to Mr. Kelly in Pyongyang in front of several US officials that he had a secret uranium program.

That admission set off a crisis that broke a 1994 agreement by which North Korea allowed its plutonium spent fuel rods to sit under UN inspection. Since that time, Kim has kicked out inspectors and moved the rods, and intelligence is unclear on whether he has reprocessed the rods, which contain enough fissile material for some 10 warheads.

The Americans had long sought a multilateral format for dealing with the prickly and potentially dangerous problem of a nuclear Korean peninsula. A year ago China stepped in and offered to host a multiparty process. The North and South have been at a de facto state of war since the armistice that ended the formal Korean war in 1953.

US officials went out of their way Wednesday to say the new formula offered was originally worked out from a joint US-South Korean plan.

One sticking point in the talks is the enriched uranium program. North Korea admitted its existence to Kelly when the US envoy showed evidence. But the North has since claimed not to have such a program. In recent months, both China and South Korea have expressed some public doubt about a uranium program. A senior US official Wednesday stated that "by public and nonpublic [sources] we are absolutely convinced that a covert program exists in the [North] - it is something that brought an end to the agreed framework."

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