WASHINGTON – After extensive deliberations, President Bush ordered his foreign policy team Wednesday to open security talks with North Korea to focus on that nation's missile program and its deployment of troops near South Korea's border. He said sanctions could be eased if North Korea "takes appropriate action."
"Our approach will offer North Korea the opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness of its desire for improved relations," Bush said in a statement issued by the White House.
Secretary of State Colin Powell will discuss the issue Thursday during a luncheon meeting with South Korea's foreign minister, Han Seung-soo.
"If North Korea responds affirmatively and takes appropriate action, we will expand our efforts to help the North Korean people, ease sanctions, and take other political steps," the president said in a five-paragraph statement.
An administration official, asking not to be identified, said the talks with North Korea are expected to begin at a low level, then move to a higher level if both sides agree.
North Korea's sanctions are linked to its designation as a state sponsor of international terrorism. Such a designation, according to congressional mandate, requires that certain economic benefits be denied to North Korea.
His review complete, Bush said he ordered his staff to discuss a "broad agenda" with North Korea, including the communist nation's nuclear activities, missile programs and missile exports "and a less-threatening conventional military posture."
The statement said the United States will encourage progress toward North-South reconciliation, peace on the Korean peninsula and "greater stability in the region."
There were intense negotiations during the last months of the Clinton administration, but the process came to an abrupt halt after Bush took office. Pyongyang reacted angrily to the delay in resuming discussions and has cut off reconciliation talks with the South.
At issue is the North's long-range missile program, a subject of keen importance in Washington because Pyongyang's rockets are capable of reaching U.S. territory. Another administration worry is North Korea's export of missiles and missile technology to Iran and other countries.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il said last month he intends to continue missile sales because his government needs the money.
Officials in Pyongyang also have told American visitors they will reconsider a 2-year-old moratorium on long-range missile tests if the administration doesn't resume negotiations.
In announcing the policy review in March, Bush used the occasion to take some verbal shots at Kim Jong Il, who, Bush said, was untrustworthy and did not live up to agreements.
Powell suggested weeks later that the Clinton-era negotiations were too narrowly focused on missiles and should be expanded to include the North's "huge army" of 1 million largely deployed along the 2-mile-wide Demilitarized Zone on the 38th parallel, within easy striking distance of Seoul and of the 37,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in the South.
The Clinton administration was making substantial headway toward a missile control agreement but had to drop the issue when time ran out in January. In exchange for a North Korean missile curb, the United States would have acted to help Pyongyang's feeble economy.
In March, Powell said he was ready to pick up the negotiation where President Clinton had left it. But Powell had to retreat after Bush decided the policy review must occur first.
The administration official said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had been skeptical about the utility of negotiating with one of the world's most repressive police states, a country that threatens war as a matter of routine.
The official said Rice now fully supports resuming negotiations. A key administration consideration all along has been whether rules could be established that would permit U.S. verification of Pyongyang's compliance with a missile control agreement.
Among those who have expressed impatience with the absence of negotiations is Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden expressed hope two weeks ago that the administration would reopen talks soon.
He said he believes the administration would conclude that "the best way to advance our interests is to join with our South Korean, Japanese and European allies in a hardheaded strategy of engaging North Korea and luring it out of its isolation."