WASHINGTON – Showing new flexibility, the United States is prepared to make concessions to North Korea in advance of that country's elimination of nuclear weapons programs, a senior State Department official said Thursday.
North Korea "would not have to do everything" before getting something in return, said the official, who briefed reporters on last week's six-nation meeting in China on the North's nuclear activities.
The official's comments suggested a softening of the previous U.S. position that North Korea would have had to dismantle its nuclear programs before the United States would be willing to offer concessions.
That stand was based on the U.S. perception that offering concessions in advance would reward North Korea for violating international commitments not to produce nuclear weapons.
Last week's meeting, in addition to North Korea and the United States, brought together China, Japan, South Korea and Russia.
The official, who asked not to be identified, described the three days of talks as a good beginning that set the stage for progress when the discussions resume, probably in Beijing before the end of the year.
On the other hand, the official said that North Korean statements over the past several days have failed to take into account the flexibility that he said the U.S. delegation in Beijing had demonstrated.
The U.S. presentation was intended to persuade the North Koreans that it is in their interest to turn away from nuclear weapons, the official said.
In its first official public comment on the discussions, North Korea said in a statement last Saturday: "The talks only reinforced our confidence that there is no other option for us but to further increase the nuclear deterrent force."
It suggested that disarmament in the absence of reciprocal steps would leave the country at the mercy of the United States.
The Bush administration (search) has said it does not harbor hostile intent toward North Korea and is willing to provide security guarantees and economic benefits as part of a broader settlement.
U.S. officials say North Korean delegate Kim Yong Il seemed intent on exacerbating the situation by warning in Beijing that his country planned a nuclear weapons test and serving notice that it had the means to deliver such weapons to distant targets.
The administration first began demanding North Korea's "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of its nuclear weapons almost a year ago.
It adopted that position after North Korea disclosed that it had begun developing a uranium-based nuclear bomb.
Since then it has withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (search) and taken steps to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods -- an essential step in the development of plutonium-based weapons.
The United States, along with North Korea's neighbors, is concerned that a North Korea with a sizable nuclear arsenal could blackmail its neighbors, trigger a regional nuclear arms race or export nuclear materials to terrorist groups or non-nuclear states.