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U.S., N. Korea Envoys Meet in Beijing

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U.S., N. Korea Envoys Meet in Beijing

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U.S., N. Korea Envoys Meet in Beijing

U.S., N. Korea Envoys Meet in Beijing

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Top U.S. and North Korea negotiators hold a rare one-on-one meeting before six-nation talks about North Korea's nuclear weapons program resume. The discussions in Beijing, stalled for more than a year, show evidence that both North Korea and the United States appear to have softened their approaches.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A rare one-on-one meeting today between top negotiators for the US and North Korea. Tomorrow, six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons programs will get under way again in Beijing; they've been stalled for more than a year. As NPR's Mike Shuster reports, both the US and North Korea appear to be softening their hard-line stances.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

From the start, the Bush administration has been at odds with itself about how to deal with North Korea. Some in the administration advocated continuing the negotiation approach advanced during the Clinton administration; hard-liners insisted talking to North Korea was fruitless and advocated regime change. Consequently, the administration's policy has been paralyzed for most of the past four years, even as North Korea restarted its nuclear weapons program and may have six to eight nuclear bombs now compared with the two it's believed to have developed a decade ago. But now, says Jack Pritchard, a former State Department envoy for North Korea, it looks like the stalemate on the American side may be over.

Mr. JACK PRITCHARD (Former State Department Envoy to North Korea): I think there's a recognition within the Bush administration that its policies to date with regard to North Korea have not succeeded.

SHUSTER: The new assistant secretary of State for East Asia, Christopher Hill, has been given much of the credit for the shift. Many who know him say he is an astute negotiator and has the room to maneuver if North Korea is actually prepared to negotiate an end to its nuclear program.

The administration may have become more flexible because of a torrent of criticism of its North Korea policy. It's come not only from adversaries of President Bush, but also from moderate Republicans such as Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush.

Mr. BRENT SCOWCROFT (Former National Security Adviser): We need a lot more nuanced efforts around the six-party talks to hopefully make progress, but at least not to make things worse.

SHUSTER: Although the Bush administration's inclusion of China, Japan, Russia and South Korea in the so-called six-party talks has been viewed favorably, the US position has been a rigid one. Until now the administration insisted North Korea give up all its nuclear programs and facilities if there are to be any economic or political rewards. In an interview this spring, Thomas Hubbard, former US ambassador to South Korea, argued that the US ought to focus first on the activities in North Korea that are the greatest threat.

Former Ambassador THOMAS HUBBARD: The most urgent task is to stop the development of the plutonium program, and that needs to be the priority thrust of our position at this point, in my view.

SHUSTER: The administration's public face on this issue has not changed a great deal. Late last week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated what the administration has been saying for the past two years.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): North Korea needs to make a strategic decision to abandon its nuclear ambitions. If they make that decision, they can start to realize better relations with the international community.

SHUSTER: Republican Congressman Jim Leach of Iowa was a bit more forthcoming. Leach is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee, and is expected to make a trip to North Korea later this summer.

Representative JIM LEACH (Republican, Iowa): What the North Koreans can expect if they agree to dismantle their nuclear program is a normalization of political relations and a normalization of economic relations, which could be very advantageous to the North.

SHUSTER: There has also been movement on the North Korean side, but understanding why is almost impossible to discern given the isolation and secrecy of North Korean leaders. China put much pressure on the North to come back to the talks. The rhetoric coming from Pyongyang has been much tempered in recent weeks. Some analysts believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Il understands the need to move into the modern world and has prevailed against his own hard-liners. And there's one other important development, says Jack Pritchard.

Mr. PRITCHARD: What's also happening here is that the South Koreans are moving quickly to add other pieces to this jigsaw puzzle.

SHUSTER: South Korea has taken the initiative recently, offering to provide large amounts of food to the North, as well as the electrical power that would be lost if North Korea gives up on nuclear power.

But if a real deal is within reach, it will have to come down to the dynamic between the North Koreans and the United States, says Donald Gregg, head of The Korea Society.

Mr. DONALD GREGG (The Korea Society): I think their major goal is a new relationship with the United States, and I don't know whether the Bush administration is really ready to undertake a completely new relationship. I think there are still some people in the Bush administration who prefer to push for regime change.

SHUSTER: The North Koreans insist they want a normalization of relations with the United States. Whether these talks succeed or fail may hinge on the willingness of the Bush administration to consider that demand seriously. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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