U.S. Softens Stance on North Korea

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The Bush administration has dropped its insistence that North Korea (search) meet U.S. nuclear disarmament demands before offering Pyongyang (search) economic assistance and other benefits.

A senior State Department official outlined the more conciliatory U.S. position on Thursday in reviewing the outcome of six-nation talks in Beijing last week on the impasse over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

North Korea "would not have to do everything" before getting something in return, said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified.

Previously, the administration insisted that North Korea would have to dismantle its nuclear programs in a verifiable, irreversible way before the United States would be willing to offer concessions.

During the Beijing talks last week, North Korea said it would disarm if the United States resumed free oil shipments, provided economic and humanitarian aid, signed a nonaggression treaty and opened diplomatic ties.

The three days of discussions in Beijing drew delegations from China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, besides the United States and North Korea. The senior official said he expected another round to be held in Beijing, possibly well before the new year.

He called the discussions a good beginning but expressed regret at North Korea's muscle flexing, particularly its vow to carry out a nuclear test for the first time. North Korea is believed to have at least one or two nuclear weapons but could have five or six more in a matter of months.

The official said the North Korean side did not acknowledge the American display of flexibility.

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.

Another U.S. concern is North Korea's penchant for exporting missile technology and weapons of mass destruction or their components.

In Paris on Thursday, the United States and 10 other countries struck an accord outlining steps for uncovering shipments of doomsday weapons. Those steps include boarding ships, forcing suspected planes to land and inspecting cargo.

John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, headed the American delegation at the Paris talks.

Noting that interdiction efforts are already a reality, Bolton called attention to Taiwan's interception in August of a North Korean-registered vessel and seizure of 158 barrels of phosphorous pentafulfide, which U.S. officials said is a chemical weapons precursor.

Bolton said the 11-nation effort was not aimed at any one nation, but he acknowledged North Korea's weapons programs were a top concern.