Rice seeks North Korea solution before window closes
By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visits South Korea, China and Japan next week to seek ways to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programs before the window closes on the Bush administration.
President George W. Bush has less than a year left to wean North Korea of its nuclear ambitions in exchange for economic and diplomatic benefits under a 2005 deal in which Pyongyang agreed to abandon all of its nuclear weapons and programs.
Making her first visit to Northeast Asia in more than a year, Rice will attend the inauguration of South Korean President-elect Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Monday and then travel to Beijing and Tokyo for consultations.
U.S. officials said there were no plans for Rice to go to Pyongyang or to meet North Korean officials in Beijing.
At the top of her agenda will be reviving the six-party agreement under which North Korea has begun to dismantle key nuclear facilities at Yongbyon but has balked at providing a complete declaration of all of its nuclear programs.
The agreement was hammered out among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.
U.S. officials regard the declaration -- which North Korea had agreed to produce by December 31 -- as a necessary condition for removing certain U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang and as a key step toward its eventual denuclearization.
According to U.S. officials and analysts, the declaration's sticking point has been Pyongyang's reluctance to discuss any transfers of nuclear technology to other nations, notably Syria, as well as its suspected pursuit of uranium enrichment.
North Korea has produced plutonium, which can be used to make atomic bombs, at Yongbyon. Uranium enrichment would give it a second pathway to fissile material for nuclear weapons.
The United States has questions about any possible North Korean role in a suspected Syrian covert nuclear site that was bombed by Israel in September. Syria has denied having a nuclear program but the case remains murky.
A senior U.S. official said Washington has begun exploring whether Pyongyang might disclose any proliferation and uranium enrichment in a separate document to be kept secret.
"We are flexible on this issue. We are open to ideas on how to do that," said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
He said China and South Korea had floated ideas to North Korea on what it might say in such a separate document but the United States had not.
However, he insisted that North Korea must disclose all of its nuclear programs at the same time to be relieved of sanctions under the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list and the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA).
He ruled out the idea of North Korea making a sequential declaration -- offering some information up front and disclosing the proliferation and uranium enrichment later.
"The difficulty with that is that the North is quite clear that ... their expectation is that they would be removed from the terrorism list and TWEA. And those things really are impossible to consider without this issue settled," he said.
Michael Green, a former White House official now at the CSIS think tank in Washington, said he thought the North Koreans were "unlikely to agree a declaration on the proliferation and the HEU (highly enriched uranium), even as a separate format."
Rather, he said Pyongyang may stall in the hopes of getting a better deal from a new U.S. president next year.
Green said he would like to see the Bush administration adopt a more coercive stance in its diplomacy to suggest there would be a price to pay for North Korea not keeping its agreements.
"It seems to me that the only way to make progress is if you sustain that mix of pressure and inducements," he said.
Lee's inauguration may give Washington a way to get tougher with North Korea because of his plans to link economic aid to North Korea with progress on denuclearization.
The senior U.S. official played down the idea of the United States itself taking a harder line, saying it would consider more punitive measures if it concluded the six-party process had ground to a halt but that it was not near such a conclusion.
"We continue to believe that however slowly -- however painfully slowly -- their system is moving, it is trying to grapple with this question" of making the declaration.
He said it was remarkable that North Korea had begun the process of giving up its nuclear programs and had allowed U.S. technicians to disable Yongbyon.
"That is not a simple thing. So, I think those who want to claim this should be done on an American schedule are really quite naive about dealing with a place as closed up as North Korea," the U.S. official said.
"This takes patience. This takes effort."
(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by John O'Callaghan)