May 18, 2006

US open to North Korea treaty talks

By Carol Giacomo and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is open to
discussions with North Korea on a peace treaty at the same time
as six-country talks on dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear
programs, a U.S. official said on Thursday.

Commenting on a report in The New York Times, the official
said the concurrent efforts had been under way for months. The
comments appeared to play down the Times' report that the Bush
administration was considering a new approach.

"The United States government seeks to implement the joint
statement laid out at the fourth round of the six-party talks
in September 2005," said the official, who asked not to be

"The joint statement noted a general agreement to discuss a
peace regime in an appropriate separate forum," the official

The Times described the effort as a new approach that
President George W. Bush is very likely to approve but said the
change would only happen if North Korea returned to the talks,
which have been stalled for months by its refusal to

"Discussions since September with North Korea have been
hindered by the glaring absence of any will on the part of the
North Koreans to fulfill the denuclearization pledge made to
all five parties to the six-party talks and the world in the
September 2005 joint statement," the U.S. official, who spoke
on Thursday, said.

As a result, Pyongyang's refusal to give up its nuclear
program makes discussions on a new peace treaty a
"non-starter," said Kim Sung-han of the Institute of Foreign
Affairs and Security in Seoul, which is associated with South
Korea's Foreign Ministry.

The last six-party negotiations was an inconclusive session
last November.


In recent interviews with Reuters, two senior U.S.
officials were very pessimistic about persuading North Korea to
return to the table and said they did not expect any movement
until after Bush leaves office, in 2009, at the earliest.

The Times noted that a new stance on North Korea would
coincide with efforts by the United States and other major
powers, so far fruitless, to persuade Iran to drop its planned
nuclear program.

Many U.S. officials and experts are concerned that Iran
draws inspiration from North Korea, which has suffered few
international penalties since declaring that it possesses
nuclear weapons and will continue to make nuclear fuel.

Although the United States in recent months launched a
crackdown on Pyongyang's income from illicit activities like
counterfeiting, China and South Korea have continued and in
some instances increased aid and investment to the impoverished
country, U.S. officials say.

The Times said that if Bush allows talks about a peace
treaty to take place on a parallel track with six-nation talks
on disarmament, it would "signal another major change of

The administration had initially insisted Pyongyang
dismantle its nuclear programs before receiving any economic or
political returns but has softened that position over time.

North Korea has long demanded a peace treaty to replace the
armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean war and the
administration has said previously it would be willing to
consider working on such an agreement.

But the question of exactly when this and other benefits
might flow to Pyongyang has sharply divided the administration.

Many officials have been hoping the communist government in
Pyongyang would collapse but experts say that is unlikely to
happen any time soon.