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U.S./North Korea: At APEC Summit, Washington Appears To Signal Softening Position

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit opened today in the Thai capital Bangkok, with the U.S.-led war on terror, economic issues, and North Korea expected to dominate discussions. Yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush signaled a possible softening in Washington's position, saying the United States could give North Korea certain security guarantees if Pyongyang agrees to scrap its nuclear program.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In an apparent softening of policy, U.S. President George W. Bush and senior administration officials have signaled the United States may be willing to give North Korea a nonaggression guarantee in exchange for Pyongyang's dismantling of its nuclear weapons program.

For months, Pyongyang and Washington have been stuck in a deadlock, with North Korea demanding a full nonaggression treaty with the United States, among other conditions, in exchange for reining in its atomic ambitions.

Until Bush's announcement in Bangkok yesterday, the United States had insisted the process work in reverse, with North Korea "verifiably and irreversibly" dismantling its program before any talk of possible concessions from Washington.

But Bush, after meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok, told reporters Washington was now willing to take Pyongyang's security concerns into consideration.

"We talked about how to advance the Beijing talks [on North Korea's nuclear program]. We talked about how to advance them by achieving a mutual goal -- which is a [nuclear] weapons-free peninsula as well as addressing the security concerns of North Korea within the context of the six-party talks," Bush said.

Bush said he would not accept a bilateral nonaggression treaty with North Korea, which would require ratification by the U.S. Senate. But senior White House officials confirmed Washington would be willing to add its signature to some sort of multilateral nonaggression declaration involving the other parties to North Korean negotiations, namely China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

Behind the scenes in Washington, say analysts, two factions have been vying for the president's ear on North Korea: the hard-liners -- represented by officials like U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who last year called the North Korean leadership an "evil regime" doomed to collapse -- and officials more inclined to diplomacy, close to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Patrick Koellner, an expert on North Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, tells RFE/RL it now appears Bush has decided to favor the State Department "doves."

"At least at the moment, the [softer] line of the State Department is prevailing -- that is, that there is indeed some sort of movement towards a negotiated solution, which hard-liners in the Bush administration, in the Pentagon and elsewhere, have so far resiste," Koellner said.

Several factors could explain Bush's decision. With some 150,000 U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States appears to have concluded it cannot engage North Korea on the battlefield without risking catastrophic overstretch.

The high risk of trying to attack North Korea, whose border runs just 40 kilometers from South Korea's metropolis Seoul, also favors negotiations, as does China's recent diplomatic activity.

Beijing has long been Pyongyang's leading military and trading partner, seeing North Korea as a useful buffer state. But as Koellner notes, Chinese officials, including the top military brass, now seem to see North Korea's nuclear ambitions as a greater potential danger.

"Certainly China's very much worried about the nuclear development on the Korean peninsula. I guess even within the leadership of the People's Liberation Army, there is now more and more the view that North Korea might no longer be really necessary as a buffer state but that, on the other hand, the possession of nuclear arms by North Korea and the potential risk of proliferation is a much higher risk than the benefit of having some sort of buffer state," Koellner said.

At China's initiative, six-way talks were held in Beijing in August that ended without a commitment by the parties on where and when to meet again. Pyongyang has since balked at returning to the negotiating table. Bush's emphasis on a negotiated solution, which he stressed again today in talks with South Korean President Roh Moon-hyun in Bangkok, appears designed to encourage Pyongyang to relent.

Whether pragmatism will win out in Pyongyang is hard to predict, but as Koellner notes, the longer the issue drags on, the more likely North Korea is to continue its race for a nuclear arsenal.

"The risk is that the longer negotiations take, the more the view in Pyongyang that there should be nuclear weapons at any price might prevail," Koellner said.

While the issue of North Korea and the global war on terrorism appeared set to dominate a large part of the agenda at the APEC summit, many leaders attending the gathering said attention should be refocused on the organization's original area of concern: economic cooperation. Specifically, several leaders called for discussions on how to restart stalled world trade talks, following last month's collapse of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Cancun, Mexico.

That meeting broke up in acrimony amid disputes over tariffs and subsidies with developing nations accusing the rich, industrialized world of having double standards.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir, taking up the banner of the poorer states, told APEC participants in a speech today that the developing world demands an equitable deal.

"That is what we are asking for, nothing very much really. We are ready to be exploited, but we must be fairly exploited [audience laughs]," Mahathir said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also urged the meeting in Bangkok to present a common front against protectionism in foreign trade and other restrictive measures. The APEC summit is due to continue tomorrow. At the urging of the United States, participants are expected to adopt a commitment to fight terrorist organizations in their respective countries.