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US Alters Approach to DPRK Nuclear Issue
In an apparent shift in its approach, the United States on Tuesday offered to talk with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to solve their escalating dispute over the latter's alleged nuclear programs.

The offer, included in a joint statement issued after a two-day trilateral meeting of senior officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea, said Washington is willing to talk with the DPRK about "how it will meet its obligations to the international community."

But Washington, which had refused any dialogue with Pyongyang before the DPRK renounced its alleged nuclear programs, also stressed that it "will not provide quid pro quos to North Korea to live up to its existing obligations."

Speaking to local media on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity, a senior State Department official described the offer as "a step forward" from what the United States had been doing over the past few months. Washington was waiting for the DPRK to respond.

The move came as the US hard-line approach adopted by the Bush administration since the DPRK nuclear issue surfaced last October appeared to have obviously failed to force Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs, analysts said.

Despite its repeated commitment to a peaceful or diplomatic solution to the problem, the Bush administration embarked on a diplomatic drive over the past few months to isolate the DPRK internationally.

Following the suspension of oil supplies to the DPRK in December, US officials threatened to refer the DPRK nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council so that the world body could impose further economic sanctions against Pyongyang.

Although Pyongyang has repeatedly expressed willingness to talk, US officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, ruled out any dialogue before the DPRK "verifiably" abandoned its alleged nuclear programs.

The DPRK responded by reactivating its mothballed nuclear facilities and expelling inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The rising diplomatic wrangling between the two sides effectively pronounced the failure of Washington's hard-lineapproach.

Meanwhile, countries like South Korea, Russia and Japan have disputed the tough US approach publicly, urging Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang. South Korea, in particular, firmly insisted that the DPRK nuclear issue be settled peacefully, saying it should play a "leading role" in defusing the crisis.

While calling on Washington to talk with Pyongyang, Seoul itself also offered to mediate between the two sides and recently produced a draft proposal for a possible solution to the DPRK nuclear issue.

Under the proposal, Pyongyang should first renounce its nuclear programs and re-freeze its nuclear facilities while Washington should immediately follow up with a "written assurance" for the DPRK's security, and resume oil shipments.

Washington reportedly turned down the South Korean proposal during the trilateral talks in Washington on Monday and Tuesday but agreed to make a concession to South Korea by agreeing to talk with the DPRK.

The increasing criticism of the Bush administration's hard-line approach by some prominent US politicians, and public opinion, also played a role in moderating the administration's attitude on dialogue with the DPRK.

Both Democrat Senator Joseph Biden, former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his successor, Republican senator Richard Lugar, repeatedly urged the administration to switch gears and begin talks with the DPRK.

A commentary published by The New York Times on Tuesday said the hard-line US policy towards the DPRK "seems bound to fail" because it is aggravating the crisis and will eventually induce the DPRK to become a nuclear state.

"The only way out ... is to negotiate with North Korea ," the commentary said. It added that the United States could save face by getting other countries like Russia to sponsor an international conference on the DPRK nuclear issue.

Analysts pointed out that while Washington expressed its willingness to talk, it has confined the topics to how the DPRK "will meet its obligations to the international community", and ruled out any concession or quid pro quos for the DPRK " to live up to its existing obligations."

At a news briefing on Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer put it more bluntly, saying that the United States' willingness to talk with the DPRK did not mean any negotiations or additional inducements.

The diplomatic nuances in wording indicated that the shift in the US approach does not necessarily constitute a fundamental change in US policy toward the DPRK, and so allows no optimism over a quick resumption of talks between the two sides.

For all that, analysts said, Washington's willingness to talk with the DPRK is still believed to be a positive step toward a peaceful solution to the DPRK nuclear issue.

(Xinhua News Agency January 9, 2003)

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