U.S. Official Pessimistic About North Korea Crisis

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A top State Department official says U.S.-North Korean negotiations cannot resume until Pyongyang agrees to eliminate its nuclear weapons programs and meets U.S. requirements in four other areas.

In addition to nuclear disarmament, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said the communist country also must protect human rights, address U.S. concerns about terrorism, cease the export of missiles and reduce conventional forces that target South Korea.

Only then would the United States be willing to take steps to "improve the lives of the North Korean people" and to establish normal relations, he said.

While ruling out negotiations for the time being, Kelly left open the possibility of direct talks with North Korea to make clear what U.S. requirements are.

He spoke Wednesday during an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kelly held out little hope that North Korea will meet U.S. disarmament demands.

"There is not the slightest sign they have any interest in stopping," he said. said.

Several senators, including committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., urged that Washington meet one on one with Pyongyang, consistent with a long-standing North Korean proposal.

Lugar said it was "vital that the United States be open to bilateral diplomatic opportunities that could be useful in reversing North Korea's nuclear weapons program."

Kelly said past experience has shown that a bilateral approach will not work.

"We are moving forward with a plan for multilateral talks rather than bilateral talks to resolve this issue," he said.

After initial resistance, Kelly suggested there now is greater acceptance of a multilaterial approach by countries in region.

The United States wants to enlist Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia and perhaps other countries in a diplomatic initiative with the communist country.

There is a sense of urgency about the situation because the North, already believed to have one or two nuclear weapons, could have several more by summer if it begins reprocessing existing stocks of plutonium.

By restarting a nuclear reactor two weeks ago, the North is in position to accumulate additional plutonium supplies which could lead to nuclear weapons in about a year.

Meanwhile, two top military officials told a House panel it is unlikely North Korea would attack South Korea in a move calculated to take advantage of the U.S. focus on Iraq. If it does, U.S. forces were well-prepared to help defend South Korea, they said.

But Army Gen. Leon J. Laporte, commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, said North Korea is likely to "continue to politically escalate the situation."

That could include further provocations involving U.S. surveillance planes, confrontations along the demilitarized zones and missile tests. Like Kelly, Laporte expressed concerns about reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods.

At the Pentagon, a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the Air Force was preparing to resume reconnaissance flights off the coast of North Korea, 10 days after Korean fighter jets intercepted an Air Force plane equipped to monitor missile tests.

It was not immediately clear whether the Air Force planned to use fighter jets to escort the reconnaissance flights, but officials said earlier this week that escorting was highly unlikely.

The United States has always asserted its right to conduct aerial surveillance in international airspace without armed escort, and rarely has encountered hostile interference.