State Department, White House Seem at Odds on Offer to North Korea

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The Bush administration (search) might be willing to give North Korea a written guarantee that the United States has no intention of attacking without provocation, the State Department said Tuesday.

At the same time, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the administration is working for a diplomatic solution to the impasse over the North Koreans' nuclear arms program but said it would not give inducements to achieve it.

Spokesman Richard Boucher was asked about a statement early this year by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that the United States was willing to put in writing an assurance against unprovoked attack. "That still stands," Boucher said.

The issue "is not whether the United States provides a piece of paper; the issue is whether North Korea stops developing nuclear weapons, and that's where the focus has to be," Boucher said.

In January, Armitage said: "We have no hostile intentions toward North Korea, and we're not going to invade North Korea. We believe that there is a way to document this, whether it's an exchange of letters or official statements or something like that."

Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) spent 2 hours last Friday in talks with a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official, but Boucher said Tuesday they did not discuss how a pledge not to invade North Korea could be put in writing.

China, which hosted U.S.-North Korean talks in April, has been pushing the Bush administration to hold a new session next month in Beijing aimed at getting Pyongyang to stop its nuclear weapons program. The United States wants five-party talks that would also include Japan and South Korea.

"We were sitting down with the Chinese and others to talk about how we can get these talks started so we can get rid of this nuclear weapons program," Boucher said.

"We think it's time for others to join these talks," he said. "We think it's time to have larger groups present at the talks."

The Washington Post (search) reported Tuesday that the Bush administration is considering granting North Korea a formal guarantee not to attack as part of a verifiable end to its nuclear weapons program. At the White House, McClellan said the administration was not considering that.

"Our position remains the same: We continue to seek a diplomatic solution, working with the countries in the neighborhood," he said. "We've made it very clear that we will not give in to blackmail, we will not grant inducements for the North to live up to its obligations."

He said North Korea needs to end its nuclear weapons program irreversibly.

On Monday, a high-ranking South Korean official predicted a possible breakthrough in the nuclear standoff, saying the United States, China and North Korea will hold talks in Beijing soon.

The nations are "in the final stage of arranging a new meeting," said Ra Jong-il, President Roh Moo-hyun's national security adviser.

McClellan was noncommittal on when talks will resume.

"We remain in close consultation with China, Japan, South Korea on the next round and how we proceed on talks, so that North Korea will verifiably, irreversibly and completely eliminate its nuclear weapons program," McClellan said.

He raised the possibility that first there would be three-party talks involving China the United States and North Korea and before Japan and South Korea joined.