Official: U.S. Open to Nuke Talks with N. Korea

The Bush administration is willing to hold limited face-to-face talks with North Korea (search) and will continue to help feed the country, but it will not sweeten a proposed trade of economic concessions for a halt in development of nuclear weapons (search), the U.S. ambassador to South Korea said Wednesday.

Maintaining a tough line, Ambassador Christopher Hill said, "They have to come to the table and respond to the proposal," which includes guarantees the United States will not invade North Korea.

Hill also stressed that any direct negotiations with North Korea would be conducted only under the umbrella of the six-country format the Bush administration set up, in contrast to the Clinton administration's one-on-one negotiations.

"We are prepared to talk to North Korea as part of the six-party process," Hill said at the Asia Society, "but we are not prepared to undermine the six-party process" that includes China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in the talks.

So far, the Bush administration's persistence in using diplomacy to solve a nuclear weapons crisis with North Korea is coming up short as Pyongyang (search) refuses to make good on its pledge to resume talks.

The International Crisis Group, a private, nonprofit organization that aims to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts around the world, recently criticized the U.S. offer as insufficient to move the process forward, saying it lacked the kind of details that could possibly win over North Korea.

"It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the talks so far have wasted two years, with the parties using them much more for restating positions than negotiating," ICG said in a report. In the meantime, North Korea "remains free to produce and potentially proliferate nuclear weapons and material," it said.

Administration analysts are convinced North Korea has made two atomic bombs (search) and may be adding to that arsenal while its program remains unchecked.

The impasse in negotiations appears to be having a divisive effect on U.S. relations with South Korea and Japan, which have urged the Bush administration to take a more flexible approach.

American diplomats are trying to smooth over those differences while looking to China to make the case to Pyongyang that it would be wise to denuclearize the Korean peninsula in exchange for security assurances and economic benefits.

"We are in sync on how to address this issue," Hill said. Asked if there were differences even with a common goal of halting North Korea's nuclear weapons production, the ambassador replied: "Do they all have identical positions? Of course not."

However, he advised the insular regime in Pyongyang not to expect a better deal than the trade-off proposed last June.

"We have to be sure they understand they are not getting a better deal," Hill said.

The veteran diplomat, who took up his post in Seoul last August after serving as U.S. ambassador to Poland and to Macedonia, stressed the U.S. offer of bilateral negotiations did not mean a return to the one-on-one talks of the Clinton era.

From the outset of the Bush administration in 2001, some analysts have urged maintaining one-on-one negotiations, which produced a suspension of North Korea's plutonium (search) production that was later ended.

But Hill said, "The notion that the United States should be addressing this issue bilaterally, I frankly do not understand."

He offered assurances that American food shipments to North Korea would continue so long as they are needed. But he said the North Korean government had failed "in a very fundamental" way to feed its people, and suggested that outsiders should monitor food shipments.

An estimated 2 million North Koreans died of starvation or disease associated with food deprivation during the mid- to late-1990s.

In the last 11/2 years, the United States has provided 150,000 tons of emergency food assistance to North Korea through the U.N. World Food Program.

A critic of the administration's negotiating strategy, Rose Gotemoeller, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said this week, "The way in which the administration has relied on diplomacy is to take a very hard line and stick with it, and not be willing to explore possible avenues of resolution.

"That's not diplomacy, that's standing tough," Gotemoeller, a former Clinton administration official, said in an interview.

The State Department this week, in urging North Korea to agree to resume six-party talks, said delay was contributing to North Korea's international isolation.

On Wednesday, department spokesman Richard Boucher said there were no developments over the last few days to indicate the impasse would end.