SINGAPORE – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pushing North Korea hard to accept terms to verify the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program after breaking a four-year hiatus in Cabinet-level talks with the communist state.
Less than 24 hours after meeting North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun for the first time, Rice said Thursday that "nobody is going to trust" Pyongyang unless it agrees quickly to a U.S.-proposed "verification protocol" to ensure that it is actually abandoning atomic arms.
"I don't think the North Koreans left with any illusions about the fact that the ball is in their court and that everybody believes they have got to respond and respond positively on verification," she told reporters.
Rice said an accounting of nuclear activities that North Korea had submitted last month, including the amount of plutonium it had produced, had raised new questions about the extent of the program that must be addressed before it can have improved ties with the United States and its immediate neighbors.
"Nobody is going to trust the North Korean number they have given on plutonium they made," she said. "The ball is in the North Korean court and we will see what they come up with."
Rice met on Wednesday with Pak and the foreign ministers of the other four nations involved in the effort — China, Japan, Russia and South Korea — to discuss the verification proposal that the United States wants to see accepted and put into force around Aug. 10.
"This will be a strong protocol," she said. "We have to have a protocol that allows us to know what has happened there and is still happening."
The proposal calls for intrusive inspections, interviews with scientists and a role for the U.N. nuclear watchdog and North Korea replied only in a cursory manner, raising some preliminary objections.
In a brief, one-on-one exchange after Wednesday's 80-minute group meeting, Rice reminded Pak of the importance the United States places on verification and also on North Korea resolving the issue of Japanese citizens it abducted in the 1980s, officials said.
Diplomats had expected Pak to present a more complete, if not full, response to the four-page protocol that was given to North Korea earlier this month after it delivered its declaration of nuclear activities.
But officials said Pak did not specifically address the document, referring instead only to the need to verify the completion of obligations that all parties have agreed to.
"Verification is not a matter only for us. It's about verifying and monitoring whether all six parties are thoroughly carrying out their obligations," the spokesman for the North Korean delegation, Ri Tong Il, told reporters on Thursday.
Hours before the talks began, North Korea said it had met its commitments and said Washington must completely abandon its "hostile policies" toward the regime if the denuclearization process is to succeed.
Rice said there had been "no surprises" at the gathering and that all six parties had reaffirmed their commitment to the goal of denuclearizing North Korea.
"I think this is quite significant," said Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. "It shows the six parties have the political will to move forward with the ... process."
Yang said the group had made "major headway" in obtaining verifiable accounting of North Korea's nuclear program and others said they believed the meeting would boost the effort ahead of a formal ministerial meeting to be held at an as-yet-unscheduled date in Beijing.
Should the verification and dismantlement proceed apace, the United States and its partners in the talks have promised to complete deliveries of fuel oil and other economic aid.
Wednesday's meeting marked the first time since 2004 that top diplomats from the United States and North Korea have met face-to-face.