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U.S./North Korea: Is Washington Softening Its Rhetoric With Pyongyang?

After months of deadlock, potential signs of progress emerged from talks aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear efforts today in Beijing.

Prague, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- China today said a consensus has been reached in six-party talks that a nuclear freeze should be the first step to the denuclearization of North Korea.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue made the statement in Beijing, after the third of four days of scheduled talks over North Korea's nuclear program. She called the agreement "a vital political common consensus.”

"Today's discussions were fruitful and open. All participants welcomed taking the first step towards denuclearization, which is launching a freeze [on North Korea's nuclear program] as soon as possible, and also all coordinating measures. This is a vital political common consensus reached during these talks," Qiyue said.

Zhang cautioned that details still needed to be worked out. But her comments were taken as evidence that the talks could produce a positive outcome, only a day after North Korea's delegation to the talks yesterday reportedly threatened to conduct a nuclear weapons test.

Analysts point to an important shift in the U.S. negotiating position as a possible key factor in the turnaround.

It is no secret that up to now, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush was deeply divided on how to deal with North Korea, ever since the country announced it was resuming it nuclear weapons program.

One camp, identified with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, appeared to favor negotiations. The other camp, closely linked with the so-called "neoconservatives," favored no concessions before Pyongyang ends its nuclear ambitions.

Now, the Powell philosophy appears to be gaining the upper hand.

For the first time since six-party talks began almost a year ago, the United States has abandoned its demand that North Korea unilaterally and fully dismantle its nuclear weapons program before being granted concessions by Washington.

Instead, Washington is offering to give North Korea provisional security guarantees and to allow other countries -- such as Russia, China, and Japan -- to give aid, as soon as North Korea initially freezes its nuclear program.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a leading Korea analyst based at Britain's Leeds University, says, "For the first time -- and one does wonder what took them so long -- the U.S. has apparently presented a detailed seven-page proposal to the North Koreans, whereas in the past they had always started by demanding what has come to be known as 'the mantra of CVID -- complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of all nuclear facilities.' The U.S. party line is that they haven't actually changed their position, because they were always prepared to talk about other things in detail if the North Koreans signed up to that. But obviously, it is a shift, because in the past, the U.S. simply demanded CVID right away, and the North Koreans said no. And nobody got anywhere."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, speaking yesterday in Washington, even held out the possibility of normalized relations with Pyongyang in the longer-term future.

"We know that non-U.S. parties, some of our friends and allies in the talks, are prepared to provide energy assistance to North Korea, nonnuclear energy assistance, once the program is stopped and we're starting to move down that road. And we've all said that if we do move down that road, dismantle the program, that the benefits to North Korea, the possibilities of better relations with us and with others, are certainly opened up quite widely," Boucher said.

That represents quite a sea change from the administration's previous statements about North Korea.

Foster-Carter attributes the policy shift in Washington to the fact that the United States' partners in the talks had grown tired of the stalemate and what they viewed as the Bush team's obstinacy -- which yielded no results.

The fact that Bush's opponent in the upcoming November presidential elections, Democrat John Kerry, has also been criticizing the White House on its Korea policy, may have had an additional effect.

"When even Japan -- the U.S.'s most loyal ally in the region, which has been quite hard-line itself towards North Korea -- starts the move, then the U.S. has got a problem. And basically, everybody else at these talks has been getting to the conclusion that it's not just North Korea that's being stubborn, but the U.S. is being equally stubborn as well. So there's all that. But on top of it, there is this [U.S. presidential] election, and although Korea on the whole doesn't tend to figure in American political discourse like the Middle East, nonetheless word has been getting back that the [John] Kerry camp has been making reasonable points of saying that the Bush administration has been doing nothing. And as a result of it doing nothing, North Koreans are developing more nuclear weapons and putting U.S. security at risk. So both the pressure from the allies and the impending election -- that's two good reasons for the Bush administration to finally make a bit of a move," Kerry said.

But Foster-Carter says the fact that the U.S. public initially found out about the U.S. proposal to North Korea from a leaked source in "The New York Times," indicates the Bush administration remains keen not to publicize its policy shift too avidly -- an indication that divisions remain within the cabinet.

Talks are due to continue into tomorrow. It is unclear if a final communique will be issued from Beijing.