WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell welcomes North Korea's agreement to join the United States and China in three-way talks but sees little hope that the discussions will lead to a speedy resolution of U.S. concerns about Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programs.
Powell, in an interview Wednesday with Associated Press Television News, also said he intends to go to Syria for talks with President Bashar Assad, whose country was a wartime ally of neighboring Iraq.
Insisting anew that Syria expel officials of the fallen Iraqi government who crossed the border, Powell said, "Syria does not want to be a safe haven in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom."
On North Korea, Powell described as good news forthcoming three-way talks in Beijing. But, he said, it was only "the beginning of a long, intense process of discussion."
"We will lay out clearly our concerns about their (the North Koreans') nuclear weapons development programs and other weapons of mass destruction, of their proliferation activities, missile programs," among other issues, he said.
No date has been set for the talks. The U.S. delegation will be led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
It was Kelly who was informed by North Korea in Pyongyang in October that the communist country was engaged in a uranium-based nuclear weapons program, a development that produced concerns about an arms race in the region.
It also led to demands from some in Congress that President Bush give North Korea a higher priority than Iraq — advice that the president ignored. He has stood by his view that the North Korea problem could be solved diplomatically.
North Korea had committed itself in various international agreements over the years to forswear nuclear weapons.
The United States has been pushing for multilateral discussions with North Korea for months but Pyongyang had been holding out for face-to-face talks with Washington, leading to a nonaggression treaty.
The Bush administration has been seeking a broad international process to discuss the issue and sees the Beijing meeting only as a starting point. It will press for the eventual inclusion of Japan, South Korea, Russia and perhaps other countries over time.
The U.S. goal is a verifiable and permanent dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
On Syria, Powell also wants to give diplomacy a chance to resolve his concerns. He said a lot of messages have been passed back and forth between Washington and Damascus in recent days.
Beyond that, Powell said, "I would expect to travel to Syria to have very candid and straightforward discussions with my foreign minister colleague (Farouk al-Sharaa) and with President Bashar Assad."
He did not say when he intended to visit Damascus, but indicated the stop would be part of a broader trip designed to spur peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.
Powell said that once a roadmap for such peacemaking was announced, "we will see a much more active American engagement for the simple reason we now have a prime minister on the Palestinian side that we can work with."
"We do have a new situation," Powell said, referring to Mahmoud Abbas, the designated prime minister, and Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.
"And so you will see us become more active, both with my own involvement and travels as well as in other ways," Powell said.
"The president will be much more deeply involved and much more active," he added.
For three decades, U.S. presidents have sought to engage Syria in peacemaking with Israel. Even during a recent flurry of U.S. accusations that Syria was assisting Saddam Hussein with military technology and providing refuge to Iraqi officials, Powell spoke of such hopes.
He has been to Syria twice in what so far has been an inconclusive Bush administration attempt to reopen Mideast peace talks.